Older and Out: Age Discrimination in the Workplace

We’ve witnessed the rise of civil rights, women’s rights, animal rights. Now, with a recession looming, we’re going to get nudged out of our jobs because of age discrimination? We don’t think so. MORE magazine reports.

By Amy Engeler

By the summer of 2002, according to her deposition, Tilley was shocked to hear coworkers ask when she would be "leaving the company." She alleged that, in a meeting, Jendrusch berated her for all kinds of shortcomings (lateness, sloppy paperwork), criticisms Tilley disputed. She called the Journal‘s corporate headquarters in North Carolina and explained to human resources that she felt she was being subjected to discriminatory treatment. The HR representative promised to look into the situation and, according to Tilley’s deposition, assured her Bemis would not be in charge of the investigation. But he was. Jendrusch was subsequently reprimanded in a written warning about her management style, Bemis said in his deposition. That, apparently, is as far as it went.

In February 2003, Tilley faced the end game — a performance improvement plan consisting of a list of sales goals she had to achieve to keep her job. But the goals were unrealistic, she claimed in her deposition, and in October, she was fired. Tilley filed a complaint with the EEOC, which enforces most of the federal laws regarding job discrimination, and with the CCRD in April 2004.

Most of the laws (including the ADEA) in the EEOC’s bailiwick require a plaintiff to file a charge with the agency before pursuing a private lawsuit in federal court. If the EEOC is unable to conclude that there is evidence of discrimination, it closes the case and gives you 90 days in which to file a private lawsuit on your own behalf. If it finds probable cause that discrimination has occurred, it will send its findings to both you and the company involved and attempt to find an out-of-court remedy. If that fails, the EEOC then grants you a "right to sue" notice. (Again, the private lawsuit must be filed within 90 days.)

Sometimes the agency itself will take on a case, filing a suit on a complainant’s behalf, but that’s rare. "We are looking for policy cases," the EEOC’s Grossman says. "Ones that involve large numbers of people or disputed applications of the law." Many cities, states, and counties have their own antidiscrimination laws and their own agencies, such as the CCRD, for enforcing them; "work-sharing" agreements between the EEOC and state civil rights offices prevent duplication of efforts.

After a 14-month investigation, the CCRD found probable cause for Tilley’s allegations, laying out its reasons in an 11-page, single-spaced determination. The agency noted that although the Journal had fired Tilley for poor performance, "the record substantially demonstrates this reason to be a pretext for unlawful discrimination." The EEOC issued her a right to sue notice. In early January 2006, Tilley went to the federal courthouse in downtown Denver, where, in her precise handwriting, she filled out the paperwork for a lawsuit and paid the $250 filing fee. Then she went to look for a lawyer and landed in Bangert’s office.

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