Judge Clears Path for Law Firm Age Discrimination Suit

June 13, 2005 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - A federal judge has cleared the way for the federal agency that enforces workplace discrimination laws to move forward with its age discrimination lawsuit against a large Chicago law firm.

The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) announced in a Web statement that US District Judge James Zagel of the US District Court for the Northern District of Illinois had rejected requests by the Sidley & Austin firm to throw out the case. The firm argued that the EEOC’s lawsuit couldn’t proceed because none of the lawyers involved in the claim had filed an agency complaint that they had been discriminated against because of their age.

The agency charged in its January 2005 suit that Sidley violated the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) by downgrading a group of law firm partners to “senior counsel” or “counsel” status in the fall of 1999 and by maintaining a mandatory retirement age for partners (See EEOC Alleges Partner Age Discrimination at Giant Law Firm ). EEOC is seeking money damages and reinstatement for these partners.

In a written ruling, Zagel said the EEOC had broader authority to seek redress of potential discrimination beyond that affecting an individual complaining party. Relying on Supreme Court precedent, Zagel, wrote: “The EEOC’s right to bring suit seeking individual relief goes beyond that of the individual and reaches the territory of public interest, thereby allowing EEOC to seek relief for individuals, like the affected Sidley partners in this case, who could not, for any variety of reasons, do so themselves.”

According to the agency’s statement, its Chicago District Office began its investigation after Sidley & Austin made statements to the news media that it had demoted partners to create opportunity for younger lawyers, reports which also mentioned its mandatory retirement age.

A Sidley statement quoted by Crains Chicago Business says the firm will continue to defend its employment practices in court. “We did not and do not make decisions about our lawyers and staff based on age,” the statement asserted.