EEOC Alleges Partner Age Discrimination at Giant Law Firm

January 14, 2005 ( - The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has filed suit against Chicago-based law firm Sidley Austin Brown & Wood over age discrimination - an issue that could have major ramifications for the structure of law firms across the country.

>After an investigation lasting four years, the EEOC has filed suit in the US District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, alleging that the large law firm practiced systemic age discrimination by demoting partners in their late 50s and 60s to counsel status, according to the New York Law Journal. The investigation into the firm began after the demotion of 32 partners in 2000. The firm has 1,400 lawyers in offices around the world.

>In its complaint, the EEOC charges that the firm violated the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) by “maintaining and implementing, since at least 1978, an age-based retirement policy,” according to the Law Journal.

>The EEOC is seeking in its suit to garner back pay and other compensation for what it calls victims of discrimination, with possible payments reaching into the millions. It is also seeking to have the firm institute practices that would make it so discrimination is not occurring at the firm, according to the Law Journal.

>Some questions have been raised whether the EEOC has jurisdiction over partners, who are employers, and not employees, under federal anti-discrimination laws. Sidley Austin is challenging the suit on these grounds. This ruling by the court calls into question the structure of partnerships in large firms, which have recently been seeing many mergers, according to the Law Journal. Since many firms now do not use voting systems as they have in the past, the outcome of this trial could have an affect on how law firms structure themselves going forward.

>However, a ruling by the US 7 th  Circuit Court of Appeals in 2002 held that the EEOC had sufficiently shown that the affected lawyers could be considered employees, citing the highly-centralized nature of the firm and lack of partner decision-making apparatuses.

>The EEOC news release regarding the suit is at . Background about the ADEA is at .