Monday, May 14, 2007

Age discrimination lawsuits continue to rise

In an article that will probably not come as much of a surprise to employers, according to today's Houston Chronicle baby boomers continue to battle age-based bias the workplace. What may be surprising, however, is the amount of dollars being spent to resolve cases in which companies almost certainly did not practice age discrimination, and large sums of money that can be at risk once cases are placed into juries' hands. The article discusses a claim filed by the EEOC against Lucent Technologies, settled for $195,000, as compared to a $1,275,000 age discrimination verdict against the University of Missouri-St. Louis in favor of its former basketball coach. Closer to home, a jury in federal court in Cleveland last fall awarded a former New York Life local manager $16 million (including $10 million in punitive damages) in an age discrimination case. As the workforce ages, so will the frequency of claims based on age discrimination.

The lessons for employers are several. First, well documented legitimate reasons for a termination are more important now than ever, as the stakes in these cases continue to rise. Secondly, judges and juries will punish companies where there exists a perception that the employee was treated unfairly, often times regardless of any discriminatory motive. Finally, all legal issues aside, employers should guide themselves by the golden rule - treat employees as one would want to be treated if in their shoes. Juries are comprised of many more employees than employers, and if those jurors feel that the plaintiff-employee was treated the same way the jurors would want to be treated, the jury will be much less likely to punish the employer, and the dollars needed to resolve the case will be much lower, if needed at all.