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Whitaker v. 3M Co.

AARP Joins Major Lawsuit Challenging Alleged Age-Biased Employer Performance Reviews

AARP Foundation Litigation attorneys have joined as co-counsel in Whitaker v. 3M Co., a class action age discrimination lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleges that 3M's personnel policies violate the Minnesota Human Rights Act. Specifically singled out as problematic are 3M's performance appraisals and leadership training programs, which workers say have resulted in promotions, compensation and job terminations that violate age discrimination laws.

3M's performance appraisal system utilizes "forced ranking," which requires supervisors to categorize employees into groups whose size is determined by established quotas. For instance, one 3M assessment program categorizes 70 percent of employees as average, 10 percent as below average, and 20 percent as above average, regardless of actual performance. Plaintiffs argue that the arbitrariness of quotas, and the subjectivity permitted to meet the quotas, invite reliance on bias; and senior supervisors, who may not be as familiar with the employees being rated, may be swayed by negative stereotypes about older workers. Whitaker and Mucci allege that 3M's forced ranking resulted in a disproportionate number of older workers being classified as "below average."

Also at issue in the lawsuit is 3M's "Six Sigma" management philosophy, in which certain employees are chosen for intensive training, which in turn leads to promotions and placement in leadership roles. The lawsuit alleges that 3M disproportionately selected younger employees for the Six Sigma program and a similar Accelerated Leadership Development Program. These training programs directly influence promotions and advancement opportunities within 3M — which makes the fact that very few beneficiaries of these training programs are over the age of 45 particularly troubling to older workers hoping to advance their careers. The lawsuit also challenges 3M's track record in regard to compensation and employee terminations, alleging that older workers at 3M are disproportionately disfavored in both respects.

The two named plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Clifford Whitaker and Michael Mucci, are age 55 and 60, respectively. Before 3M's forced ranking system was instituted, each received "good" or "exceptional" rankings; once the forced ranking system took effect their rankings moved rapidly downward and they were denied training opportunities, promotions, pay increases and other advancement. Whitaker, for instance, asserts that although his evaluation before forced-ranking recommended him for Six Sigma participation, he was never enrolled in that program.

AARP attorneys have been involved in several forced ranking cases over the past few years. In 2001, AARP attorneys were welcomed as co-counsel in a forced ranking case against Ford Motor Company that ended with a $10.6 million settlement the following year. A similar lawsuit against Capital One in which AARP attorneys again were co-counsel was settled on favorable terms in 2003. Several other challenges to forced ranking schemes — against Sprint, Goodyear and Caterpillar — are pending in the courts.

Whitaker seeks compensation and punitive damages for effected employees and, most important, an injunction to change human resources policies and practices at 3M.

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