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Barton v. Zimmer

Court Denies Compensation to Age Discrimination Victim Incapacitated by Emotional Distress

A federal appeals court ruled that while age discrimination laws allow it to award some remedies, they do not permit awards for emotional distress.

Background

Bruce Barton was employed by Zimmer, Inc. when he suffered discrimination from a supervisor, Andy Richardson. In the words of the trial court, Richardson "was a terrible manager. Among other things, Richardson made comments about wanting to get rid of 'old guys' like Barton, removed Barton's most significant job duties and trained a younger employee to be his protégé." Barton complained to federal authorities and his employer ultimately fired Richardson.

Barton says the discrimination he suffered was so severe that he suffered a mental breakdown. Upon his return from medical leave, he was moved to a different job for which he says he was unqualified and not adequately trained. Continuing to be exposed to negative comments regarding the earlier proceedings against the prior supervisor, Barton suffered a mental breakdown, took disability leave, and when that was exhausted he retired.

Barton sued, alleging violations of the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) and Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Zimmer unsuccessfully sought to dismiss the age discrimination claim, but then was successful when it sought to exclude evidence regarding the cause of Barton's mental disability. The trial court ruled that the evidence was unrelated to rights under the ADEA and FMLA, since it was related to emotional distress (which is not covered by the laws) rather than future economic harm (which is). Because it had determined that the relief he sought was not available, the court dismissed his age discrimination case.

On appeal, attorneys with AARP Foundation Litigation filed AARP's "friend of the court" brief arguing that the ADEA permits an award of damages for lost future earnings caused by an employer who engages in or allows a discriminatory action so egregious that it cause an employee to be unable to work. Moreover, the appeals court hearing the case (as well as four other appeals courts) has already recognized that other civil rights laws on which the ADEA is based allow recovery for emotional distress if the emotional distress is caused by discrimination. This rationale was specifically extended to the ADEA by two other appellate courts. Congress intentionally gave courts broad discretion in fashioning appropriate relief under the ADEA in order to effectuate the broad purpose of the ADEA, which is to make wronged workers whole.

The appeals court disagreed. It ruled that the statute allowed it to award reinstatement, back pay, front pay and other remedies but did not permit the court to award emotional distress or pain and suffering damages.

What's at Stake

Allowing employers to avoid liability in cases such as these effectively rewards the most egregious offenders. This decision was limited to the unusual facts in the case, but it is a disappointment nonetheless.

Case Status

Barton v. Zimmer was decided by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit.


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