What happens to those people who don’t just limit their stories about age discrimination to the friendly ears at the proverbial water cooler and instead actually attempt to seek enforcement of the protections they are entitled to under federal and state law?
Is it worth the stress and aggravation of filing a complaint with the EEOC?
Most of those who fought back against age discrimination in the workplace would say yes, it was worth it, according to Cathy Ventrell-Monsees, senior advisor to the chair of the EEOC and who, for 13 years, directed the age discrimination litigation program at AARP.
Ventrell-Monsees said that the number of complaints by older workers who were put out to pasture prematurely or passed over for jobs has certainly increased — and so have the amounts for damages that juries have dinged companies who practice age discrimination.
But, from her days as a litigator of age discrimination cases, she said, she rarely found a plaintiff “who was in it for the money.” Rather, she said, “most want to correct the wrong.”
That seeking of social justice was what prompted Julianne Taaffe and Kathryn Moon to sue Ohio State University in 2015, a case that was settled last May when the two educators were awarded $765,000 in back pay. The bigger win though, may have been that the university agreed to review its policies for preventing and investigating age discrimination.
As Jeff Vardaro of the Gittes Law Group that was part of their legal team said, “Julie and Kathy were committed throughout this process to achieving change that will prevent the same thing from happening again to them or their peers.”
The two women insisted on a settlement that included effective, in-depth training and a top-to-bottom review of OSU’s discrimination investigation policies, Vardaro said. At the time of the settlement, attorney Fred Gittes called the case “remarkable” both for the “shocking” nature of the harassment and because Ohio State was committed to “fixing a system that’s really clearly broken,” he said.
According to the suit, Moon, who was 64 when the complaint was filed, had worked as an ESL instructor for 31 years at the university. Taaffe, who was 59 at the time, had worked there for more than 20 years. An ESL director was quoted in the lawsuit, saying that trying to get older teachers to modernize was like “herding hippos,” among other insults.
Proving wrongful termination because of age is one thing. Proving you weren’t hired in the first place because you are too old is quite another, said Ventrell-Monsees.
Take the case of Army Master Fitness Trainer Lars Sandstrom, who at age 45 applied for a job with the Maui Police Department. During the 2009 interview, he was told it was doubtful that “someone your age can handle the training,” according to the complaint he filed with the EEOC. He also was questioned about how “someone your age could take orders from younger officers.
He left the interview with what he described as the “most incredibly uncomfortable feeling of my life.” He felt betrayed and violated — a victim for the first time.
Ventrell-Monsees noted that that’s often the case. She said the emotional trauma of age discrimination is often more severe than what comes from racist or sexist discrimination. It may just be, she said, that “minority workers or women are [just more] used to it happening.”
Sandstrom’s case, which is profiled on the EEOC’s website, was settled for $24,000 in damages — and the Maui County’s agreement to monitor the police department’s compliance with federal age discrimination laws.
For his part, Sandstrom urges older workers to “not look the other way. You should not ignore it. You should not accept it. You should ask for and pursue justice.”
Ventrell-Monsees said that in some cases, large damage awards have been given by juries only to be reduced by judges.
One glaring example of that is a case against aerospace and defense contractor Lockheed Martin, which saw one of the largest verdicts ever awarded to a single plaintiff in the history of age discrimination litigation.
Plaintiff Robert Braden was employed by Lockheed Martin and its predecessors for almost 30 years before he was fired during a round of company layoffs in 2012. He was 66 at the time, and sued Lockheed Martin, claiming age discrimination under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA).
After a four-day trial, the jury awarded him more than $51 million, $50 million of which was in punitive damages that a federal judge later ruled was “excessive.” A retrial would be required to determine how much, if anything, the company should pay to deter such misconduct in the future.
While not speaking to this case in specific, Ventrell-Monsees noted that “the people (on juries) get it,” and added that “it’s judges with lifetime appointments who don’t always get it.”