Senate Aging Committee Pledges to Fight Age Discrimination in Employment

At a hearing on Wednesday, leaders of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging vowed to “fix” a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court decision that makes it very difficult for older workers to fight age discrimination in federal court.

Committee Chairperson Susan Collins, R-ME, and Ranking Leader Bob Casey, D-PA,  also acknowledged the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), which was signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson on December 15, 1967.

Collins and Casey addressed the Supreme Court’s catastrophic 2009 decision, in Gross v. FBL Financial Services, which raised the burden of proof in ADEA cases far above that of race or sex discrimination cases under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Since Gross, older workers have been required prove that age discrimination was not just a motivating factor but the decisive factor in an adverse employment action. The Gross decision legalized a broad swath of  discrimination that is illegal under Title VII and sent a signal to employers that age discrimination will be tolerated.

 “For the life of me,” said Collins, “I don’t understand why there is a higher burden for proving that age discrimination was the reason for the adverse employment action … compared to gender, religion, race.”

The legislators expressed strong support for a bill they are sponsoring, the Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act (POWADA), which would essentially restore the status quo with respect to the plaintiff’s evidentiary burden prior to the Gross decision. The bill  has been introduced several times since 2009 but has never made it out of committee to a vote. Sen. Casey, who worked on age discrimination cases as an attorney, said it was always hard for workers to fight back against insidious age discrimination but that it is even harder today “because the Supreme Court weakened the ADEA and we’ve got to fix that.”

A witness at the hearing, Laurie McCann, a senior attorney for the AARP, urged the Committee to hold a series of hearings to learn what changes are needed to update and strengthen the ADEA to adequately protect older workers. “The AARP believes that it is well past time to update and strengthen the ADEA so that it can respond to the challenges facing today’s older workers in today’s workplace,” she said.

As I demonstrated in my 2013 book, Betrayed: The Legalization of Age Discrimination in the Workplace, the ADEA was far weaker than Title VII when it was adopted 50 years ago and it has since been eviscerated by the U.S. Supreme Court.  In the book, I proposed repealing the ADEA and making age a protected class under Title VII, as was originally proposed when the passage of Title VII was being debated by Congress.

According to McCann, three in ten near-retiree-age (55-64) households have no retirement savings at all and the median retirement savings of all near-retiree households was only $14,500 in 2013. McCann said financial need is by far the most important reason that workers aged 45-74 work. She blamed age discrimination on persistent negative stereotypes and discriminatory employer recruitment practices, including advertising for “digital natives,” specifying a maximum number of years of experience or limiting recruitment to entry-level positions on college campuses.

Financial need is by far the most important reason that workers aged 45-74 work – AARP.

The committee also issued a report on Wednesday examining the nation’s aging workforce, “America’s Aging Workforce: Opportunities and Challenges.”  The report states the number of Americans over age 55 in the labor force is projected to increase from 35.7 million in 2016 to 42.1 million in 2026, and, by 2026, aging workers will make up nearly one quarter of the labor force.  The business case for hiring, retaining, and supporting older workers is strong, according to the report, but challenges exist – including age discrimination, inadequate training opportunities, working while managing health conditions and disabilities, balancing caregiving responsibilities with work, and preparing financially for retirement.

Collins said U.S. employers are going to need older workers in the years ahead and can’t afford to “discard skills and experience that older workers bring to workplace.”

Another witness, Lisa Motta, 54, from Pittsburgh, Pa., testified about re-entering the workforce in her 50s  after having lost her sight. A former teacher, she now works as a recruiting administrator at PNC Bank. “As America’s workforce grows older, more and more workers will face challenges like these and will need additional supports and accommodations,” Motta said. “They will also need laws in place that ensure that when they walk into an interview they do not face any form of discrimination. When we make it easier for these workers to succeed, everyone benefits.”

Prior to Wednesday’s hearing, the Senate aging committee was criticized for failing to act in the face of the epidemic of age discrimination in the workplace that occurred during and since the Great Recession.

Absent from Wednesday’s hearing was a representative from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which has ignored a major spike in age discrimination complaints dsince 2008 and rampant age discrimination in the federal government, and has issued administrative decisions that reflect a higher standard in age discrimination cases than in race or sex discrimination case.

Ratchet Up the Consequences for Employers that Ignore Sexual Harassment

A perusal of recent headlines shows that companies will place their heads firmly in the sand to keep harassers on the payroll if the company is focused on short term profits.

Despite potential ruinous risk to reputation, costly turnover, lost work time and higher health care costs (among other things) the fact of the matter is that many employers  tolerate sexual harassment when the harasser is valuable to the organization. In some ways, the on-going wave of public sexual harassment incidents is similar to the problem with unsafe cars manufactured in the United States in the 1960s. It was cheaper for car makers to settle lawsuits out of court than to manufacturer safer cars.

In February, 21st Century Fox renewed Bill O’Reilly’s contract  knowing that he was in the process of settling a sexual harassment complaint by a news analyst, who eventually received a $32 million settlement.  O’Reilly, then  the most-watched figure on cable TV, had earlier settled several other sexual harassment claims out of court.

Producer Harvey Weinstein had several Oscars to his credit but he was a notorious bully for years, not to mention sexual predator (or worse). He also was known to engage in physical violence at the office on occasion.

TMZ says  Weinstein’s 2015 employment contract states that if the Weinstein Company had to pay settlements for his sexual or other misconduct, he must reimburse the company and pay an escalating set of fines: $1 million for the fourth and any subsequent instance.

Congress must insure employers that ignore evidence of sexual harassment face consequences that make it more expensive for them to do nothing than to act.

The complacency of Fox and the Weinstein Company demonstrates how little employers today fear the American legal system, which they count on to  work on their benefit. Typically, employers retain  human resource officers and legal staff who are trained to protect the company from sexual harassment complaints. Courts permit employers to make the legal process as long and difficult as possible for the victims, who often have few resources because they were driven out of their jobs by the employer and the harasser.

A recent development has made it even easier for employers. When the EEOC finds there is reasonable cause to believe the employer is guilty of sexual harassment, it offers a free and confidential mediation program whereby the employer can settle the matter – usually for peanuts – without even having to go to court. And it’s all secret!

Both Fox and The Weinstein Company knew or should have known of their employee’s abusive behavior but apparently they concluded the benefit of retaining the abuser outweighed the cost of paying the occasional out-of-court settlement.  What is needed is serious consequence for employers who ignore evidence of sexual harassment. And by that I mean serious.  A company that is making a profit of X billion should be ordered by a court to pay a percentage of its profit in damages. In that way, society will insure that employers take sexual harassment seriously.

Federal Courts Criticized for Dismissive Treatment of Employment Discrimination Victims

There is overwhelming evidence that federal courts for years have ignored and marginalized plaintiffs in employment discrimination cases.

Judge Richard A. Posner, one of the nation’s leading appellate judges, recently resigned from the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals citing his disgust for the dismissive treatment that his fellow jurists accorded to pro se litigants. The vast majority of pro se litigants are victims of a justice system that is too expensive for all but a privileged few. Most Americans cannot afford to hire an attorney and either must proceed on their own or passively suffer gross injustice. Posner told abovethelaw.com that pro se litigants “deserve a better shake.”

Posner says judges divert the cases of pro se litigants to staff attorneys and then routinely dismiss the case after the employer files a motion for summary judgment.

In addition to Posner, attorneys for the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University School of Law are questioning the high rate of dismissals in lawsuits involving employment discrimination. They filed an amicus brief last month that points to research showing that from 1979 to 2006, the plaintiff win-rate in federal employment cases was only 15%, compared to the 51% success for plaintiffs (a.k.a. businesses) in the non-employment context.

The win rate for victims of employment discrimination was 15% compared to 51% for plaintiffs in the non-employment context.

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U.S. Chamber of Commerce No “Friend of the Court”

Nice to see someone calling out the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which frequently inserts itself into national litigation as a “friend of the court.”

In reality, the Chamber is almost always an advocate for a dues paying corporate member and espouses a position that is anti-employee and anti-consumer. In 2014, I argued the Chamber was a federal court lobbyist.

According to Reuters, the firm of Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein has opposed  the Chamber’s request to file an amicus or “friend of the court” brief in a case involving a challenge by Direct TV to the certification of a class action by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.  Lieff’s brief argues the Chamber, the Chamber’s lawyers, DirectTV and Direct TV’s lawyers are bound so closely together that even under a liberal reading of the definition of an amicus curiae, the Chamber cannot legitimately be regarded as a friend of the court.

“The Chamber is not merely a friend of the party, but essentially the party itself.” – Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein

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