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Hear Ye! Hear Ye! A Case of Age Discrimination

Editor's Note: Hear Ye! Hear Ye! explores a real court case. Read about it below and decide how you would rule. Then read the actual verdict and let us know if you agree.

Diane Schleich could not believe that her supervisor was treating her so badly. She and her boss, Ernest King, had been friendly when she first transferred in 2000 from the city manager’s office to human resources in the North Lauderdale, Fla., government. Schleich, then 58 years old, was an executive assistant in the four-person department; King, then in his late 40s, was a manager. When the head of the office left, according to Schleich in a recent interview, King asked her to help him apply for the job. She did, even coming in on a Saturday to prepare a letter and portfolio for him. But after King was made acting head of the office, trouble started.

During the next year, Schleich says that King’s treatment of her grew increasingly harsh. He hired a young man in his 20s, who had worked with King’s wife, as a part-time specialist. The other employee in the office was a woman in her late 20s. According to Schleich, King allowed the two younger employees special privileges, including long lunches, late arrival, and early departure when they had a child-care emergency. They were allowed to run errands and given liberal sick leave. But when it came to Schleich, she says, King insisted that she follow every rule to the letter. If she went to the doctor, he yelled at her, telling her she should go during nonwork hours.

When Schleich tried to speak to King about his treatment of her, she says, he told her it was all in her head, using an expletive to make his point. When he walked by her desk, he sometimes muttered nasty words like “worthless” in her direction.

“I would go home and cry,” Schleich says. “I couldn’t understand why he was doing this.”

Upping the Ante

Although she didn’t know it at the time, Schleich’s job was under threat. Claiming budget constraints, King presented a plan to the city commissioners in July 2005 that would do away with Schleich’s $36,000-a-year job, along with another administrative job, but his proposal was narrowly defeated. Meanwhile, Schleich had kept detailed notes of every instance of what she considered to be abuse and discriminatory treatment. She filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), alleging age discrimination because she was held to different standards than the younger employees. Schleich also filed a grievance with the city.

On Aug. 18, 2005, Schleich’s efforts backfired. Her grievance reached the city manager’s desk. That same day, the EEOC complaint arrived in the human resources department mail and was given to King. That afternoon at 4:30, Schleich was told there was a human resources department meeting. When she arrived, she was given a memo informing her that her job was abolished.

Schleich amended her EEOC complaint to add the charge of retaliation. “Rarely do we get a case as good as this,” says Fred Behul, Schleich’s EEOC investigator, in an interview with the AARP Bulletin. He calls it a “classic case of discrimination.”

Down and Out

Meanwhile, Schleich started looking for work. She says that the city had told her that she would be first in line if another job became available. A month after her dismissal, a specialist position opened in human resources. The young man King had previously hired got the job even though he had no experience for the position, according to Behul.

At 62, Schleich was getting nowhere in her job search. Then Hurricane Wilma hit Florida, knocking out electricity for 3 1/2 months. Schleich ate through her 401(k), had to sell her house and her car, and ended up moving in with her son.

Meanwhile, the EEOC issued a ruling in Schleich’s favor on all counts. According to the EEOC, the city had subjected Schleich to different terms and conditions of work than her younger colleagues. But even after the regional EEOC office affirmed the ruling, the city refused to settle the case, so Schleich went to court.

The City’s Side

In front of a six-person jury, King denied ever harassing Schleich or treating her in any discriminatory way. The city’s attorney argued that Schleich was laid off as part of a reduction in force. The city was outsourcing many operations in an effort to economize and Schleich was aware that her job was on the chopping block at the end of the fiscal year. Various department heads and the city commissioners had discussed eliminating her job.

Schleich also had never complained of age discrimination, the city’s lawyer said, and raised that claim in a desperate eleventh-hour attempt to keep her job. According to the city’s public information officer, Pam Donovan, “the age discrimination never happened.” Donovan added that a city clerk who served until she was 75 and other employees older than Schleich worked for the city at the same time. The first the city even knew of her claim was when the EEOC complaint arrived, the day she was already scheduled to be laid off.

“She was dismissed for budget reasons, and because her performance slacked off, her dismissal came five weeks earlier than planned,” Donovan said.

If you were sitting in the jury box, how would you vote? Read the verdict.

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