California Age Discrimination Claims

On July 5, 2010 the California Supreme Court unanimously eased the burden of proof for plaintiffs in age discrimination cases. In Reid v. Google, Inc., the plaintiff, a 54 year old engineer, claimed that he was terminated because of age discrimination. He cited Google’s human resource representatives’ statements that he was not a “cultural fit” and stray comments, such as you are “fuzzy”, “obsolete”, and “too old to matter”, as evidence that he was a victim of age discrimination. Google invoked the “stray comments” doctrine which holds that liability for age discrimination cannot be based on “stray comments”. The California Supreme Court rejected that argument, thereby making it easier for plaintiffs to prevail in age discrimination cases. As a result, we anticipate that more workers will file claims for age discrimination, and more cases will go to trial on the merits and/or result in larger settlements.

The workforce now includes four distinct age groups of workers. “Boomers” are the oldest work group and “millennials” are the youngest, with “gen-X” and “gen-Y” in between. A majority of boomers have postponed retirement and are working longer than was typical in the past because of increased life expectancies, loss of employment in what were previously two-income households, and decreased savings due to the stock market crash of 2008 and ongoing recession. At the same time, “millennials” have entered the workplace with a whole new technology-centric style of communication that differs dramatically from the boomers’ traditional style. Issues of when to actually speak to someone “live”, email or “text talk” can lead to confusion and alienation between these groups. The sense of urgency in communications and dynamic interaction between co-workers has radically changed as a consequence. In every sense, it is a “brave new world” in the workplace.

A related issue that should receive more attention is the fact that boomers are increasingly facing physical limitations that require workplace accommodations. Employers should increasingly be mindful of their compliance with Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements.

All companies are advised to give serious attention to these matters. We recommend you consider auditing your current practices to ascertain whether you are acting in a manner that is inclusive of and fair to all age groups. Claims of age discrimination should not be ignored, and should be met with a thorough investigation. Policies and procedures that foster a work environment that is age-neutral should be put in place. Age discrimination, at either end of the spectrum, should not be tolerated. As the Reid case demonstrates, the consequences could be potentially very harmful.

Lisa Chapman
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