Kudos to a Los Angeles Superior Court jury, which has said – in no uncertain terms – that age discrimination won’t be tolerated.
In a significant decision, the jury awarded a 66-year-old man – Bob Nickel – a $26 million wrongful-termination and age-discrimination verdict. (The award consisted of $3.2 million in compensatory damages and more than $22.8 million in punitive damages.) The losing defendants: Staples Contract and Commercial, Inc. and Staples, Inc.
The award is described as the largest of its kind in Los Angeles legal history. While the award stands out in terms of size, the case, unfortunately, sounds all too familiar.
The details …
Nickel was a 64-year-old man at the time of his termination in July 2011. He had been employed as a facilities manager by the organization since August 2002, when he joined Corporate Express, which was acquired by Staples Contract and Staples in 2008. And he did his job. Well, it seems. For nine years or so, Nickel received positive reviews for performing his work in an exemplary manner.
However, through no fault of his own, Corporate Express’ pay scale had been higher than the pay scale for employees hired by Staples. So, like many others in similar situations, he had a bull’s-eye painted on his back. And Nickel, like those others going through the same thing, could feel it growing larger and larger. And he said so in his lawsuit, alleging that his managers noted that they needed to “get rid of” older, higher-paid employees.
(At the same time, his employer apparently was so focused on getting rid of him that it couldn’t govern what was said about Nickel. In his complaint, Nickel says he became the regular butt of jokes at staff meetings and was referred to as “old coot” and “old goat.”)
At the trial, the jury heard that Nickel refused to resign voluntarily when prompted to by a manager. And that he underwent a series of false accusations and increasing levels of harassment from co-workers and a manager. This included being written up and suspended for “stealing,” after taking a bell pepper valued at 68 cents from the company cafeteria.
Regarding the bell pepper: Defense attorneys said taking the bell pepper violated the company’s zero-tolerance policy when it came to “dishonesty of any kind, including theft or misappropriation of company property.”
The jury also heard that a receptionist had approached Nickel explaining she had been ordered by management to provide a false statement about Nickel’s conduct. To her credit, she refused.
Bob “has a long history of being a hard working, ethical professional who had held his position of employment for almost a decade prior to his wrongful termination,” says attorney Carney Shegerian. “This verdict and the justice served will hopefully put employers on notice that they cannot discriminate against employees based on age.”
That’s a lofty and admirable objective. Hopefully, the Human Resources departments of employers all across the country are paying attention.