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Court Upholds Retaliation Claims

An Ohio man who successfully sued his employer under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) prevailed once again on appeal in front of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio. Jon Spengler was fifty-three years old when he started as a seasonal employee in charge of spray-washing pressure cylinders designed to hold propane and other industrial gases. Despite his above average performance, Spengler was repeatedly not promoted to regular full-time status like many of his high-achieving counterparts.

A supervisor attempted to quell Spengler’s questions about promotion by telling Spengler that he would recommend a transfer to the Steel Division because Spengler would “probably have trouble keeping up with the younger guys” in the Cylinder Division. When Spengler reported such comments to the Plant Manager, that supervisor was admonished. Less than four weeks later, the plant terminated Spengler because of “negative comments” from his co-workers concerning Spengler’s “attitude and interpersonal skills”.

After his firing, Spengler continued to defend his right to work and filed an EEOC complaint against Worthington Cylinders. Within five months of his firing, he also retained counsel and brought the ADEA claims.

Given the notorious high standards of proof under ADEA, Spengler’s age discrimination claim did not survive summary judgment. But because he prudently raised his concerns to a supervising manager at the early stages of the situation, his retaliation claim had legs. The jury awarded him about $22K for lost wages and an equal amount in liquidated damages.

On appeal, the Court rejected the notion that EEOC channels must be exhausted before a plaintiff can proceed with federal court claims. The Court found no jurisdictional prerequisite of exhaustion under the ADEA itself.

The Court likewise rejected the procedural protest that Spengler failed to check the little “retaliation” box on his EEOC form. Because Spengler reported the facts of his situation in detail on the form, the Court held that the EEOC was on practical notice that Spengler felt retaliated against.

Worthington further tried to chalk Spengler’s firing up to routine “cleaning-house” of seasonal employees. Spengler showed evidence, however, that this “routine” was not routine at all, and that production had remained steady during his tenure at Worthington. Lastly, the Court upheld the liquidated damages on the reasoning that Worthington supervisors knew it was engaging in an illegal act when they fired Spengler for raising his concerns as a protected class employee.

If you believe you have been terminated because of your age or retaliated against for complaining of discrimination, it is important to contact an attorney.