America’s workforce is aging, and this means that while employers gain the benefit of more experience and accumulated knowledge, they also are confronted with having to pay the higher salaries that build over decades of loyal service. In many cases, companies are responding to increased overhead by taking discriminatory actions against older workers, and this has led to a dramatic increase in the number of age discrimination lawsuits that are being filed. A case that was decided recently resulted in what may have been the largest jury award every awarded in a single-plaintiff case involving age discrimination: Lockheed Martin was told to pay Robert Braden over $1 million in lost wages and benefits and emotional distress, plus another $50 million in punitive damages after they laid him off after 28 years while retaining all other (younger) employees with the same job title. The company hired a new staff member for his position less than one year after his layoff, despite the fact that the reason given for having eliminated his position was lack of available work.
The case follows Braden’s experience during a company-wide layoff that took place in July of 2012. Braden worked as a senior project specialist for the company’s Maritime Systems and Sensors Unit in Moorestown, New Jersey. At 66 he was the oldest employee in his department: two other employees with the same job title who were 42 and 28 years old were not asked to leave. When asked during depositions why he was chosen for the layoff rather than any other employees in his group, company officials provided contradictory explanations and the case proceeded to trial.
Testimony provided by Braden indicated that the corporate culture at Lockheed Martin worked against older workers: the company had instituted a performance rating system that facilitated high scores, raises and promotions for younger workers while encouraging minimal increases in compensation and depressed performance scores for older employees. The reasoning that Braden offered based on his own previous involvement in scoring employee performance was that older workers “had nowhere else to go.” Braden’s testimony also included details of a subpar performance review that he had received a year before his layoff. He alleged that this review separated him from his peers and placed him in a “community of interest” without having any relation to his actual work product. He also cited comments he had been told were made about him to a supervisor by a higher level Lockheed Martin executive, indicating, “This guy has been here too long. We need to get rid of him.”
Lockheed Martin defended themselves by indicating that they had a dedicated equal employment opportunity group specifically dedicated to preventing age discrimination during the reduction in force. They testified that Braden had been terminated based on below average performance and lack of work, but the jury was not swayed by this defense. They decided that Braden would not have lost his job if not for his age, and handed down the dramatic verdict in favor of the older employee.
New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) prohibits companies from taking discriminatory action against an employee based on their age, their gender, their religion, and several other protected categories. If you believe that you have been a victim of discrimination you may be entitled to take action against those responsible. The attorneys at Shebell & Shebell take your rights as a member of a protected class seriously, and we are here to help you get the justice you deserve.