“Substantial” Evidence in Age Discrimination Cases

gavelThose few age discrimination victims who manage to prevail in lawsuits against their employers may find their victory is elusive.

 Such was the case in California recently when a Superior Court judge voided a jury’s decision to award 15 San Francisco firefighters $3.7 million in damages on the grounds of age discrimination in a city promotional exam. In a 9-3 verdict in 2013, the jury found the test was skewed against firefighters who were over the age of 40.

Judge Anne-Christine Massullo effectively snatched victory from the firefighters and gave it to the city.

The firefighters had accused the city of arbitrarily altering dozens of scores on the 2008 test and shredding documents before the firefighters had a chance to file a legal challenge. Judge Massullo questioned the city’s decision to destroy the documents but said this was minor error and that the test was “overwhelmingly successful” in measuring the firefighters’ job-related skills in a “fair and objective” way.

In my book, Betrayed: The Legalization of Age Discrimination in the Workplace, I point to research showing  that employment discrimination cases are disproportionately dismissed on pre-trial or post-trial motions. A 2006 study found that federal judges grant employer motions to dismiss in employment discrimination cases 73 percent of the time, compared to a dismissal rate of about 53 percent in antitrust, patent and trademark cases. Employers also are disproportionately successful in reversing employee’s victories on appeal.

 Judicial override  of a jury verdict should be an absolute last resort because it is inherently a vote of “no confidence” in America’s civil justice system. Moreover, it is an appalling waste of resources when taxpayer money is spent empanelling juries and holding expensive trials only to have a judge say that he/she knows better.

Judge Massullo decided that no “substantial” evidence existed to support the jury’s verdict but what does this really mean? The U.S. Supreme Court has said that juries are uniquely qualified to decide cases that rest on determinations about conflicting evidence and the credibility of witnesses. It should be presumed that juries are more qualified than judges to decide the quantum of  “substantial”  evidence necessary to warrant a finding of age discrimination.

EEOC Snubs Age Discrimination – Again

Yet again, the EEOC in 2014 devoted a disproportionately small percentage of its resources toward litigating age discrimination complaints.

The EEOC filed 133 merits lawsuits during FY 2014, compared to 131 in 2013 and 378 a decade ago. Merits lawsuits include direct suits and interventions by the EEOC alleging violations of the substantive provisions of federal discrimination laws as well as suits to enforce administrative settlements.  Of the merits lawsuits filed by the EEOC in 2014:

  • 76 contained Title VII claims
  • 49 contained Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) claims;
  • 12 contained Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) claims;
  • two contained Equal Pay Act (EPA) claims;
  • two contained Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act (GINA) claims.

* Note – some suits have multiple claims.

So about eight percent of  the claims in merit lawsuits filed by the  EEOC in 2014 involved age discrimination. Typically, age discrimination complaints represent at least 20 percent of all EEOC complaints. If this holds true in 2014 – the EEOC has not released these statistics yet – the EEOC will have  devoted a disproportionately small share of its resources to litigating age discrimination claims. The EEOC filed seven merits lawsuits with age discrimination claims in 2013.

In my new book Betrayed: The Legalization of Age Discrimination in the Workplace, I show that the odds are heavily stacked against employment discrimination victims in federal courts, and particularly age discrimination victims, who start out with a higher burden of proof. The vast majority of age discrimination claims are summarily dismissed by judges. I also argue that age discrimination is epidemic in American society because Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 fails to protect older workers and the EEOC has virtually ignored the problem.

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The Lack of Equal Justice for All

There was an article in the New York Times recently about the elusiveness of justice for African-Americans in the criminal justice system.

This obviously reflects ingrained racism but it is also a symptom of a wider problem – the lack of equal justice for the poor and the middle class in America.

The leadership of our nation’s civil and criminal justice system, the U.S. Supreme Court, does not serve as a role model for equal justice for all. And the U.S. Congress, which holds the power of the purse-strings over the judicial branch, provides no discernible oversight as to how the court system spends taxpayer money.

An egregious example of the wider problem is  the U.S. Supreme Court‘s refusal to allow its proceedings to be broadcast. This is really an issue about transparency and accountability.  The leadership of the third branch of government in the world’s leading democracy has chosen not to be transparent and or accountable. And if you don’t like it, tough!

The Court’s disdainful attitude toward the American public was not acceptable after television attained broad popularity fifty years ago and it is completely unacceptable in the Internet age. The Court exists to serve the public, not the Court.  This doesn’t mean the Court is subject to the whims of the majority but that the Court must be guided by founding American principles of equality and justice for all.

In my new book, Betrayed: The Legalization of Age Discrimination in the Workplace, I focus on the civil justice system, which  has utterly failed to protect older workers from irrational and harmful age discrimination. This is particularly true for vulnerable older workers (i.e. minorities and women).

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 was weak to begin with and has been eviscerated by the U.S. Supreme Court, which has made it almost impossible to win a federal age discrimination lawsuit. Age discrimination has become normalized in American society and is trickling down to ever younger workers (i.e., the youth apartheid state of Silicon Valley).  But younger workers have years to rebound, while older workers often are plunged into a penurious old age of deprivation.

I suggest the judiciary create a special federal court to hear appeals in  discrimination cases. This court could be staffed with federal judges who are both educated in and dedicated to the concept of equal justice. This court would not be limited to age discrimination but would decide appeals in all cases alleging discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, sexual orientation and disability, etc.

Age discrimination represents a kind of government subsidy for employers, by allowing them to replace more expensive older workers with cheap young labor. Taxpayers  pick up the tab in the form of higher social welfare costs, including health care and Social Security benefits.  I doubt that most taxpayers would want to pay this subsidy if they knew they were paying it.

WANTED: Advocacy Group to Help Older Workers

The Time For Action is Long Overdue

What advocacy group exists today to fight age discrimination in the workplace?

My first thought was the AARP, formerly the American Association of Retired Persons, which has an estimated 37 million members. The AARP is said to be one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the United States. But it is in the business of selling health insurance to retired people, not equality in the workplace.

The AARP has a non-profit foundation that exists to advocate for older Americans. It says it helps “struggling seniors by being a force for change on the most serious issues they face today.” The web site of the AARP Foundation has lots of opportunities to “donate today” and “ways to give.” It claims to be “a voice and an advocate.” Here are the articles under “AARP Foundation in the News”  on Oct. 6, 2014:

  • How to manage your money better after 50.
  • The people of Haiti thank AARP members.
  • AARP Foundation invites NASCAR fans to ‘Ride with Jeff.”
  • Couples say relationships benefit from volunteering together..

Considering the serious issues facing older workers today, this is the equivalent of marshmallow fluff on burnt toast.  Efforts to reach Foundation President Lisa Marsh Ryerson and other Foundation officials through their web site were unsuccessful.

Who Cares?

Who advocates for older workers who are unemployed, floundering in long-term unemployment, and working in poorly-paid part-time jobs with no benefits? Research shows that millions of older workers have been forced into a penurious early retirement since the Great Recession because they can’t get jobs.  This hasn’t stopped Congress from debating cuts to Social Security. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has virtually ignored a record increase in age discrimination complaints. Despite receiving more than 20,000 complaints in 2013, the EEOC filed only a handful of lawsuits with age discrimination claims.

The thesis of my new book, Betrayed: The Legalization of Age Discrimination in the Workplace, is that the major U.S. law prohibiting age discrimination was weak to begin with and has been eviscerated by the U.S. Supreme Court. There is no question that older workers are literally treated like second class citizens in our nation’s court system. Who cares?

The AARP Foundation has a legal arm that files friend of the court briefs and purportedly represents plaintiffs in age discrimination lawsuits.  However, the problems facing older workers will not be resolved in the federal courts, which are demonstrably hostile to all employment discrimination lawsuits.

Older Americans must demand their representatives in the U.S. Congress address the epidemic of age discrimination.  For five years, Congress has failed even to pass the Protection Older Workers Against Discrimination Act, which would merely eliminate one of many inequities facing older workers compared workers who are protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, sex, national origin and religion. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2009 issued a mean-spirited and unnecessary decision requiring  older workers to meet a much higher level of proof in age discrimination cases than exists for discrimination victims who file claims under Title VII.  No one has put forth any credible justification for treating age discrimination victims worse than other discrimination victims. The failure of Congress to address this harmful injustice also reflects the lack of an effective advocacy groups for older workers.

One would have hoped that our nation’s first African-American president, Barack H. Obama, would show some sensitivity to the problem of age discrimination. He made the problem incrementally worse when he signed an executive order in 2010 that permits government agencies to bypass older workers in favor of hiring younger workers. The justification for this program is that the government was incapable of competing with the private sector for younger workers during the worst recession in 100 years.  Really?

What American workers need  now is an advocacy group that will lobby the U.S. Congress to restore their rights.  We need an organization that has a strategy and a plan to create positive change.  If the AARP Foundation wants to continue to collect money to advocate for the rights of older workers, individuals and grant organizations should demand  action on Capital Hill.  If this is too uncomfortable for the offspring of a behemoth medical sales organization, then we need a new organization that is willing to do the job.