Labor and Employment

Scientists Awarded Millions for Age Discrimination

Economic recession means many people being let go from their jobs. While sometimes such layoffs are justified, others aren't. PQ Corp., a Pennsylvania chemical manufacturing firm, was recently hit with a $6.2 million judgment after it fired two scientists in 2005.

While the company claimed that they were simply downsizing, two scientists succeeded in proving that the layoffs targeted older workers.

What Is Employment Discrimination?

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) makes age discrimination illegal. With minor exceptions, the ADEA makes it illegal for your employer to fire you or lower your salary based on your age.

It applies to workers who are at least 40 years old and to employers in companies with at least 20 employees. Also, many states have similar age discrimination laws which can be much stricter than the ADEA.

Did PQ Corp. Violate the ADEA?

The company argued that all of the layoffs were justified by reasons completely unrelated to age and the workers were fired because funding for their positions was eliminated. However, the workers' lawyers proved that the company manipulated its budget to justify layoffs in which every fired worker was 55 or older. Younger workers who should have been fired under the same budget reductions weren't.

The scientists were able to show intentional discrimination when the company "cooked its books." The jury and judge came down hard on the company and awarded the scientists a large amount.

The Award

The ADEA allows automatic doubling of each worker's back pay award when intentional discrimination is found. The jury also decided the workers suffered emotional damage.

Marcus, 65, received more than $667,000 in back pay, more than $670,000 in front pay, and $1.5 million in compensatory damages. After the back pay award doubled, his total award is more than $3.5 million.

Wypart, 61, settled for nearly $190,000 in back pay, more than $375,000 in front pay, and $2 million in compensatory damages. It was total of more than $2.7 million after doubling the back pay.

Also, the total judgment against PQ Corp. increases significantly because workers can also seek attorney fees in the award. They'll also try to get an increase to their awards to help with the negative tax consequences of receiving a lump sum payment.

What Does This Mean to Me?

While this downturn in the economy has resulted in many layoffs, it's important for companies and employers to make sure that their selection is fair and honest. Also, the corporate analysis of the workers selected must also be fair and not simply to get rid of older employees.

If you think you've been fired or laid off due to your age, you can file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or the Fair Employment Practices Agency (FEPA) in your state. You need to do this before you can hire an attorney and file a lawsuit.

If your lawsuit is successful, damages can be extensive. You could be awarded:

  • Back pay, the salary and other benefits you would've been paid if you hadn't been discriminated against
  • Reinstatement, meaning you're rehired (if you want)
  • Your court costs and attorney's fees
  • The jury may also award compensatory damages

Note that your time may be limited. You may be offered a severance package to accept or reject within a given time frame. In most cases, if you accept the package, you cannot file a lawsuit against your former company.

File a complaint with the EEOC or FEPA as soon as possible and talk to a labor and employment attorney to determine the next steps.

With age comes experience that some companies don't want to pay for. Age discrimination is difficult to prove since you may not have access to the documents that prove you were let go or not hired due to your age.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • I am 65 and think I was fired due to my age. Do I have any remedies?
  • If I am awarded reinstatement, do I have to take it? Can I opt for damages instead?
  • How long do I have to decide whether to sue my employer?
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