AARP Foundation Litigation (AFL) attorneys recently extended their representation of 3M workers to those bringing a nationwide challenge to the company’s human resources policies affecting pay, promotions and terminations.
Since 2004, the AFL attorneys have participated as co-counsel for plaintiffs in an ongoing age discrimination lawsuit against 3M Co. in the Minnesota state court. Although the trial judge in that case, Whitaker v. 3M Co., last year certified the suit as a class action, a Minnesota appeals court recently reversed that decision and sent the case back to the trial court where, after more evidence is presented, the plaintiffs can renew their request for class certification.
But even as that case was being returned to the state trial court for further proceedings under Minnesota law, a separate class action lawsuit against 3M was filed in federal court in California alleging that 3M applied the same age-biased corporate policies and practices at issue in Whitaker to its older workers throughout the country in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), the federal law against age bias in the workplace.
The Minnesota Suit
The Minnesota suit alleges that 3M engaged in a pattern or practice of intentionally discriminating against older employees in performance appraisals, training, promotions, pay and terminations, largely through HR policies adopted since 2001. Additionally, the case alleges that these policies have adversely impacted 3M’s older employees.
These policies include selecting younger employees for training as Black Belts and Master Black Belts in 3M’s Six Sigma program initiated in 2001. Six Sigma is designed to position employees who successfully complete the program on the fast track for promotion and higher pay. The suit alleges that 3M assigns older employees lower performance evaluations than younger employees through a forced distribution, or quota, process and then uses the lower performance ratings to discriminate against older employees in promotions and compensation and to justify their termination.
The complaint in Whitaker alleges that 3M violated the Minnesota Human Rights Act by discriminating against its Minnesota employees age 46 and older. The lawsuit seeks changes in business practices, compensation for pay and benefits that class members should have received had they not been victimized by age discrimination, and punitive damages to both deter 3M from engaging in similar conduct and send a strong message to other employers that age discrimination will not be tolerated.
The Federal Suit
The plaintiffs in Garcia v. 3M Co., filed in federal court in San Jose, Calif., allege that older 3M employees in California, Texas and other states faced the same age-biased corporate policies and practices that victimized 3M’s older workers in Minnesota. Additionally, the federal suit challenges the validity of the waiver 3M required terminated older workers to sign to receive enhanced severance benefits.
The federal Older Workers Benefit Protection Act (OWBPA) contains specific requirements for waivers and releases. Since the Minnesota Human Rights Act does not contain such protections, those older Minnesota 3M employees who signed a release upon termination cannot be part of the class action that the Minnesota state court is expected to eventually again certify. If the federal court declares in Garcia that the release violates OWBPA, those release signers excluded from the Minnesota case could participate in the federal suit as members of the class that could total 6,000 current and former 3M employees from all over the country.