Age bias in IT: Should you sue?

Age discrimination lawsuits aren't easy to endure, but they can be won. Here's what you need to know.

Age discrimination complaints are on the rise. In the last 10 years, according to figures from the U. S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the number of age discrimination charges filed with the commission rose from roughly 16,000 in 2000 to more than 23,000 in 2010.

Does IT have an age problem?

And lawyers and employment specialists say the number of lawsuits is up dramatically as well.

While the EEOC doesn't break out statistics specifically for IT, there's no indication the tech industry isn't experiencing its fair share of legal wrangling. Just this month, high-tech giant 3M agreed to pay $3 million to former employees and adopt preventive measures after the EEOC filed a lawsuit charging that the company laid off hundreds of employees over the age of 45 with the intention of making way for younger workers.

And consumer tech darlings Apple and Google are both currently enmeshed in age-discrimination lawsuits as well.

In October of 2010, a former employee of an Apple retail store in Orlando filed suit against the company, alleging that his managers routinely ignored and denied his requests for promotion and instead promoted younger workers with less seniority and fewer qualifications. He was 60 years old at the time he was hired. The case is still pending.

And Brian Reid, who had been hired as Google's director of operations in 2002 at age 52, filed suit against the company after he was fired in 2004, claiming he was commonly referred to as "old man" and an "old fuddy-duddy" and was told he was not a "cultural fit."

The case was dismissed by a Santa Clara County judge 2005, but an appeals court reinstated it in 2007, a ruling that was upheld by the California Supreme Court in 2010. The case is now cleared to proceed to a jury trial, though no date has been set.

Getting an age discrimination case in front of a jury means the plaintiff has a good chance of winning, or successfully settling, the suit, says Robert Ottinger, a partner in the New York office of The Ottinger Firm PC, a law firm that specializes in employment law but is not involved in the lawsuits mentioned above.

A 2009 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Gross v. FBL Financial Services, raised the bar for age discrimination cases, saying that plaintiffs, and not the companies being sued, bear the burden of proving a dismissal or reassignment of duties was due to age and not some other factor. But even so, Ottinger says, jurors often react more to the "story" of the suit. "You get [a case] in front of a jury, and the jurors think, 'We know what's going on here,'" he explains.

What's more, the Gross decision only applies to the federal Age Discrimination Employment Act (ADEA). Ottinger says that when he works on an age discrimination suit, he usually uses state laws, most of which are much stronger than the federal statute and carry easier burdens of proof.

The best-case scenario, says Ottinger, is when he's able to show a pattern of discriminatory behavior by the employer: If a company laid off mostly older workers and then hired a bunch of recent college graduates a few months later, for example. (In fact, under the a 1990 amendment to the ADEA, when employers undergo restructurings, lay people off or offer early retirement plans, they are required to provide information about the ages of both terminated and retained employees.)

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