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COURT RULING MAKES IT EASIER TO CLAIM AGE BIAS

Turning the 'Big Four-Oh' might signal the start of middle-age, the need for reading glasses and maybe a few gray hairs, but certainly not the sunset of a career.

And the U.S. Supreme Court wants to keep it that way.

In a March 30 ruling, the nation's highest court made it easier for workers over age 40 to allege age discrimination, even if their employers never intended any harm.

The unanimous ruling, which dealt with the hiring policies of a Mississippi police department, found that the affected officers didn't have to prove the city deliberately discriminated against them because of their age, only that the policies disproportionately impacted them.

At issue were workplace policies that appear neutral but actually disproportionately hurt older workers. Advocates for the aging say few employers would ever be upfront about intentionally favoring younger workers, making age bias claims hard to win absent the rare "smoking gun."

With nearly half of the nation's work force now age 40 or over, the ruling potentially opens the door to thousands of age discrimination claims which previously would not have met the direct evidence threshold.

"Age discrimination cases have always been tough ones, for both the plaintiffs and the lawyers who take them on, because of the evidence requirements," said Hamburg labor law attorney Andrew P. Fleming.

The lawyer said employers have been able to disguise age discrimination as an assortment of worker sins, everything from low productivity to insubordination. Personnel files papered with poor evaluations and disciplinary actions have covered more than a few terminations, demotions and stalled careers of seasoned employees, according to Fleming.

"Age discrimination is the elephant in the room. Everybody knows it goes on, but no one says it out loud," he added. "The ability to bring a claim on circumstantial evidence should help root it out."

At least one local worker knows first-hand how difficult it can be to prove age discrimination. In May 1993, Joseph A. Speth, of Eggertsville, then 47, was let go from his job as a sales executive with Monsanto Corp. Initially, he assumed his release was tied to Monsanto's recent acquisition of the Ortho Consumer Products Division of the Chevron Chemical Co.

He had spent 15 years as a sales executive for Chevron's lawn and garden products division, and had, ironically, been named the division's top performer in 1992.

"I thought they were just cutting excess jobs and I was just unlucky. I didn't think it had to do with my age," Speth said.

But when the fired workers from across the country started calling each other, it became clear they were all in their late 40s or older, and were all in mid- or upper-management.

"It was like a bell started ringing." he recalled. "When we put the pieces together we realized Monsanto and Chevron conspired to eliminate older workers to save money."

Speth and 42 other workers sued the companies and in 1996 the group reached an $18.2-million settlement. While the damage award helped ease the pain, he struggled through a year of unemployment, a few years of under-employment, and later found a rewarding position that evaporated when the company left the area.

These days he serves as Deputy Superintendent of Highways for the Town of Amherst, which he calls a "happy ending" to his employment woes.

"It was terribly hard, especially knowing I lost a great job for no reason of my own doing," he said. "Hopefully, the Supreme Court ruling will put these companies on notice that workers will be watching and have the ability to fight back."

e-mail: slinstedt@buffnews.com