William J. Hennessy Jr.
En español | Every day, older Americans are fighting for their rights on all kinds of issues — from senior housing to guardianship disputes to potential heirs bickering over an estate without a will — often with surprising results. Here's your chance to test your legal skills and play judge and jury on real cases. And remember, as remarkable as some of these verdicts are, what follows is, we swear, the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Age discrimination victim or pantry thief?
The situation: One year shy of 65, Bobby Nickel says he was forced out of his job as a facilities manager at Staples in La Mirada, California, after, he claims, enduring age-related jokes by higher-ups who regularly referred to him as an “old coot” and “old goat.” Nickel, brought on nine years earlier by an outside agency that typically pays more than Staples-hired employees receive, believed that his employers resented his larger paychecks and pushed him out, as they did other older employees. The company countered that Nickel was actually fired for stealing from the office cafeteria at lunchtime and after hours, and that he'd even admitted to taking three beverages and one bell pepper.
The case: Nickel sued Staples, mainly for age-based discrimination, harassment, retaliation and defamation. The defendants contended that there was insufficient evidence of discrimination and that, in any case, Nickel, by lifting food and drink, simply violated Staples’ zero tolerance anti-theft policy, for which several younger employees had likewise been fired.
In February 2014, Los Angeles Superior Court awarded Nickel, after appeal, $16 million in compensatory and punitive damages. Several older Staples workers alleged in the trial that they were also pressured out of jobs due to discrimination or retaliation, including one who described being derided for requesting medical accommodations following a stroke. After his dismissal, Nickel couldn't find work in California and was forced to relocate to Idaho. He showed signs of depression, anxiety, weight gain and what his wife called “a broken spirit,” which left him “just a shell of who he had been.” As for that claim of stealing, it was more like a bad joke: Staples called out Nickel for drinking three beverages after hours (which company officials conceded he'd later paid for) and eating a bell pepper from a salad that had fallen on the floor while he evaluated whether the refrigerators were working properly. Nickel testified that he'd later paid for the pepper — a whopping 68 cents.
The lesson: “If you think you're being wronged, don't give up,” says Michael DeLaney, a certified elder law attorney and member of the board of directors of the National Elder Law Foundation. “A lot of people might just throw in the towel, but [Nickel] sensed that there was a campaign to push out older, higher-paid workers for younger people, and he stood up for what's right.”
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