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The Law

Government Employees and Age Discrimination

Age cannot be a factor in personnel decisions

Richard Ford

Richard Ford felt he earned the new job. — Sean McCormick

In 2006, Richard Ford had been an engineer for the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) for 31 years, and he sought a position he felt he had earned: branch head of NAVSEA overseeing the improvement of ship systems to reduce electromagnetic problems. Instead, an employee 25 years younger got the job.

Ford, then 66, blamed age discrimination and went to court. "The Navy let my age get in the way of my desire to best serve my country," he said recently.

According to court documents, when Ford was told that he had not gotten the job, a Navy official said that the reason was a combination of Ford's lack of "topside design experience" and a statement Ford allegedly made during the interview process, that he had trouble dealing with bureaucracy. Ford, in court documents, has challenged both explanations. Navy attorney Christian Natiello declined to comment.

The Navy persuaded the lower district court that age was one factor, but not the only factor and not the determining factor. AARP filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Ford. "This decision underscores the fact that Congress intended to fully protect employees of the federal government against all forms of age discrimination in employment," said AARP Foundation Litigation Senior Attorney Tom Osborne.

The case follows a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court decision that a private-sector employee is required to prove that age was the sole reason for an adverse employment decision. In the Ford case, the appeals court agreed with Ford that the Age Discrimination in Employment Act gives broader rights to federal employees. If age is just one of the factors for a rejection of a federal employee, Ford's attorneys and AARP argued, the federal statute must prevail.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled for Ford in December. "The federal government cannot use age as a factor in personnel decisions," said Ford's attorney, Michael G. Kane of the Washington firm Cashdan & Kane.

What it means to you: If you feel you have been the victim of age discrimination in the workplace, consult an attorney who specializes in employment law.

Emily Sachar is a journalist and author based in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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