For more than 27 years, John Stannard, 62, had a job he loved at the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory (KAPL), in Niskayuna, N.Y. Owned by the U.S. Department of Energy and operated by Lockheed Martin Corp., the facility designs, builds and tests naval nuclear reactors and trains U.S. Navy personnel to operate and maintain them. Stannard helped test nuclear containment systems.
Then, unexpectedly, in 1996 he was laid off as part of a workforce reduction. Of the 31 individuals who were terminated, 30 were over age 40. "I was proud to do a job which I considered important to our national security," said Stannard, who now works as a janitor at the Knolls plant. "When I was laid off, I felt completely betrayed." Shortly after the terminations, 35 new employees were hired, most of them under age 40.
Stannard and 25 other older workers sued in 1997, claiming in U.S. district court that KAPL designed the reduction to eliminate older employees, in violation of the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act. KAPL countered that it faced budget pressure and needed to reduce its workforce while retaining employees with skills critical to the performance of the facility's functions. Neither KAPL nor its attorney would discuss the case.
For nearly 14 years the case has been enmeshed in the legal system, a time line that AARP argued was especially detrimental to older workers. Initially a jury ruled in favor of the employees and awarded them $5 million. But the case has since languished as a series of rulings and reversals hinged on whether the workers or the employer had to prove that age was or was not a critical factor in the layoffs. It reached the U.S. Supreme Court three separate times. Finally, in October the court ordered a new lower court trial in the case, 14 years after Stannard and the others lost their jobs. Two of the original plaintiffs have died.
"We are extremely disappointed in the Supreme Court's recent decision, which will add years of unnecessary and wrongful delay to Mr. Stannard's case," said Laurie McCann, senior attorney for AARP Foundation Litigation. "Hopefully, other older workers, for whom time and delay are unforgiving, will not be deterred from challenging unlawful age discrimination by this case's tortuous history."
What it means to you: If you believe you were laid off because of your age, you should file a charge of age discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Emily Sachar is a journalist and author based in Brooklyn, N.Y.