New Jersey District Court Judge Discards Jury’s $50 Million Punitive Damage Award to Age Discrimination Plaintiff

About a year ago, we published an article on the firm’s LaborSphere blog about a $51.4 million jury award to a former Lockheed Martin employee who alleged age discrimination when he was let go as part of a company-wide reduction in force (“RIF”).  At the time of the verdict, press coverage speculated that the multimillion dollar verdict was roughly five times more than any prior award, throughout the country, in a single-plaintiff discrimination case.  Recently, U.S. District Court Judge Renee Bumb tossed out the $50 million punitive damages award because the plaintiff failed to show that Lockheed Martin’s upper management was involved in or indifferent to the discriminatory conduct.

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Jury Awards $51 Million to an Age Discrimination Plaintiff: What Can We Learn?

A New Jersey jury awarded a mid-level manager $51.4 million(!) on January 26, 2017, after a short four-day trial. New Jersey juries have awarded age discrimination plaintiffs multi-million dollar verdicts in the past – but $51 million is roughly five times any prior award. Press coverage on the verdict speculates that this may be the highest jury award ever, throughout the country, in a single-plaintiff age discrimination case. While the post-trial motions and appeals are yet to be filed, there are some initial takeaways from this case.

As with most age discrimination lawsuits, this case arose out of a reduction in force (RIF). Robert Braden had been employed by Lockheed Martin, and its predecessors, for 28 years when he was let go in July of 2012 as part of a company-wide RIF. Six months later, Mr. Braden filed a charge of age discrimination with the EEOC based on the fact that he was the oldest of 6 people in a company unit, and the only one fired from that unit. He alleged that he was selected for the layoff at age 66 while the two other employees holding his same title, both significantly younger (ages 42 and 38), were allowed to keep their jobs. He also alleged that the company had a practice of giving younger workers better reviews and raises to keep them at the company, while older workers were given lower ratings and raises since they “had nowhere else to go.” He subsequently withdrew his claim with the EEOC so he could sue Lockheed Martin, which he did in federal court in Camden, New Jersey in 2014.

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Third Circuit Makes it Easier to Prove ADEA Disparate Impact Claims By Use of Subgroups of Older Workers

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals recently issued a precedential decision, Karlo, et al. v. Pittsburgh Glass Works, LLC, that likely will make it easier for subgroups of older workers to bring lawsuits under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”), on a “disparate impact” theory of liability.  It also creates a split with the Second, Sixth and Eighth circuits, paving the way for greater uncertainty for national employers.

The Karlo Decision – Comparison of Subgroups Permitted For Disparate Impact Analysis  

The defendant Pittsburgh Glass Works, LLC instituted reductions in force that resulted in the termination of approximately 100 employees.  The plaintiffs, a group of workers all over the age of 50, brought a putative ADEA collective action, asserting, among other things, disparate impact claims.  To establish a prima facie case for disparate impact under the ADEA, a plaintiff must (1) identify a specific, facially neutral policy, and (2) proffer statistical evidence that the policy caused a significant age-based disparity. The plaintiffs alleged that they had identified a policy that disproportionately impacted a subgroup of employees older than 50.  However, because the policy favored younger members of the protected class (i.e., employees older than 40 but younger than 50), adding them into the comparison group did not show any statistical evidence of disparity.  The district court initially certified a collective action, but subsequently granted a motion to decertify and then granted summary judgment to the employer.

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