Jury Awards $51.5 Million for Age Discrimination
A former Lockheed engineer was awarded $51.5 million by a federal court jury in New Jersey after the jury found that in laying the employee off, Lockheed had engaged in age discrimination. Pursuant to the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), the employee was awarded $520,000 in back pay, which was doubled because the jury found that Lockheed’s actions were willful, and $520,000 for his pain and suffering.
The jury also awarded him $50 million in punitive damages pursuant to the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. The Maine Employment Lawyer Blog (1) notes that such a high punitive damages award wouldn’t have been allowed in other states, and (2) theorizes that because Lockheed had net earnings of $3.8 billion in 2016, the jury may have felt that the company wouldn’t be affected much by a punitive damages award that was not in the tens of millions of dollars.
Robert Braden was 66 years old when he was fired during a reduction in force (RIF). Of the 110 employees who shared Braden’s job classification, only five were let go, and all five were older than 50. According to Philly.com, Braden testified that Lockheed employees had said that “older employees have nowhere else to go” and therefore could be treated worse than younger employees.
The LaborSphere labor and employment law blog notes that Lockheed took several actions that were likely to make a jury suspect that the company’s decision was due to age discrimination. First, Lockheed offered conflicting and contradictory reasons for the decision to select Braden for the RIF, saying at one point that his performance was unsatisfactory and at another point that there wasn’t enough work in his department. “This is critically important,” the blog stated, “as the law is clear: if a jury determines that the employer’s proffered legitimate reasons for the decision to terminate are false, the jury can reasonably infer that the employer is lying to cover up discrimination.” Lockheed’s argument that Braden’s performance was unsatisfactory might have made an impression on the jury if the argument had been made consistently and if Lockheed had backed it up with discipline records. Without those elements, Lockheed’s layoffs looked like workplace discrimination against an older employee.
Second, Lockheed had a process in place to prevent age discrimination in the RIF, including an adverse impact analysis to be conducted by HR with the company’s lawyers. However, Braden did not go through the company’s standard RIF process. As we’ve stated before, it’s not enough for a company to have policies if the policies are not enforced and ingrained into the company’s compliance culture. A company that follows its own policies is better able to defend itself against a claim of bias.
Third, Braden held the same title as two younger workers retained by the company. This made it easy for jurors to assume that age must have been the difference in the decision to lay off Braden and not them. Lockheed tried to distinguish the younger employees as being the same in title/name only, saying that the younger employees held more responsible positions and had different/more valuable skill sets than Braden. “Roles within companies are dynamic,” the blog acknowledges, “but if job titles and descriptions remain static the distinction is often lost on a third party” such as a jury.
Finally, Lockheed claimed that the RIF was required because there was a lack of work in Braden’s department. But within a year, Lockheed hired a younger employee in Braden’s position.
Braden also testified about stray remarks that Lockheed employees made about older employees. According to the LaborSphere blog, a company can try to explain away stray remarks, but it’s better if managers don’t make such remarks at all. As the blog advises:
Regular and robust anti-harassment [training] for managers is helpful to prevent such remarks from occurring in the first place – and to demonstrate that your company does not act in reckless disregard for discrimination laws if a rogue employee makes a senseless remark.
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