Employers Beware: Age Discrimination Doesn’t Pay

The sad truth about age discrimination, and discrimination in general, is that companies get away with the practice time and again. They cleverly find ways to conceal their unlawful behavior with the help of defense attorneys, HR pros, or complicit employees.

But for those companies who are confronted by employees (and their attorneys), and taken to task in a court of law, the price for discriminatory behaviorcan be very high. This is particularly true when punitive damages are factored into the final judgment.

This article was written to discuss the practice of age discrimination, what the law says about it, as well as a case or two resulting in high-sum judgments for discrimination victims.

If you believe you’ve experienced discrimination, been harassed or wrongfully terminated, contact our office for a free consultation.

Age Discrimination

Woman Experiences Age Discrimination, Jury Awards Her Millions

In June 2018, it was reported that a jury awarded a Southern California woman $31 million in an age discrimination suit against her employer. Since 1978, 58-year-old Codie Rael of Ontario had worked for various subsidiaries of Washington-based Danaher Corp. At the time she quit, she was working as a materials buyer and planner. She quit in 2014 citing the stress of working for a supervisor named Fernando Estavillo, and his boss, Mark Valiquette.

Rael alleged that Estavillo, had directed a number of derogatory comments toward her such as “we need younger workers here,” “you’re part of the old culture,” and “dumb female.”

In her complaint, Rael alleged that Estavillo pressured her to perform exactly as he demanded, while holding the constant threat of termination over her head.

After Rael quit, she was replaced by a man in his 20s.

According to a report by KFI Am 640, Rael was initially awarded $3 million in the first phase of jury deliberations. Before the second phase of deliberations, which considered punitive damages, her attorney made reference to the company’s pattern of firing older workers and hiring younger replacements.

“This wasn’t some accident that a whole department was wiped out and replaced by people younger and cheaper,” Rael’s attorney said to the jury. “What you’ve realized in your verdict, they’ve known for years.”

The jury returned with an additional $28 million award for Rael, which was to be paid by two of Danaher Corp’s subsidiaries.

What Are Punitive Damages?

Punitive damages are the awards that tend to grab headlines because of the large sums they represent. This type of award was designed to punish the company and discourage the offending behavior from happening in the future. In order to receive punitive damages, your lawyer will have to convince a jury that when the company discriminated against you, it acted with fraud, malice or oppression.

Another high profile age-discrimination case, also tried in the Los Angeles area in which punitive damages were awarded, involved a 64-year old employee of Staples Inc. who had received positive work reviews for years before new management took over the company.  The employee alleged that after new management took charge, he found himself the butt of regular jokes about his age at staff meetings. These included him being called an “old coot” and an “old goat.” After being asked to resign and refusing, the employee alleged he was subject to a series of false accusations. He was ultimately fired after the company accused him of taking a bell pepper from the cafeteria. The jury hearing his case agreed that he had experienced discrimination, and awarded him $26 million.

What the Law Says About Age Discrimination

There are laws at both the state and federal level that protect workers from various types of discrimination including age discrimination. California employment attorneys prefer to use the state law, known as the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA),  since it can be used against companies with as few as five employees. Unlike the Federal Law, FEHA also doesn’t place a cap on damages. The Act makes it unlawful for employers to discriminate against employees or job applicants based on a number of characteristics including sexual orientation, religion, nationality, race as well as age (older than 40).

Section 11076 states:

“Discrimination on the basis of age may be established by showing that a job applicant’s or employee’s age over 40 was considered in the denial of an employment benefit.”

Age Discrimination Can Take Different Forms

The cases in this article have focused on employees who were wrongfully terminated because of their age. However, this isn’t the only form age discrimination takes. It can also include:

  • Being denied promotions
  • Receiving lower pay than co-workers
  • Being denied advancement opportunities
  • Physical isolation in the workplace
  • Sudden or unexplained changes in work schedule
  • Sudden or unexplained changes in duties
  • Harassing comments or verbal abuse
  • Other issues

What Type of Compensation Can a Victim of Age Discrimination Recover?

While it’s impossible to predict the outcome of an age discrimination case, it is possible to discuss the different types of compensation available to an employee who wins a lawsuit or settlement. These include:

  • Back Pay
  • Lost Wages
  • Pain and Suffering
  • Punitive Damages

As mentioned in a previous section, punitive damages are usually high sums designed to punish the company for discrimination. Because it’s more difficult to prove that the company acted with fraud, malice or oppression than it is to prove that the company simply engaged in discriminatory actions, these types of awards are less common. However, if you believe that there might have been a systematic attempt by the company to discriminate against its employees, or that the company acted in a knowingly despicable way, you might be eligible for punitive damages and should discuss the matter with an employment attorney.

When to Contact a Lawyer

If you’ve read this article and identified with anything discussed here, it could be worth your time and effort to discuss your case with a lawyer. At the office of Odell & Freeze, we offer free consultations, and also take cases on a contingency basis. This means if we take your case, you don’t pay attorneys’ fees out of pocket. Rather the attorney is paid from a portion of the settlement or judgment.

If you’ve experienced age discrimination at your place of employment, fight back. With the help of a good attorney, it’s possible to receive fair compensation. Contact the office of Odell & Freeze for more information.

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