Judge Refuses to Dismiss Grace Age-Based Firing Suit

June 29, 2007 (PLANSPONSOR.COM) - A suit alleging a company violated federal laws by firing an employee shortly before he became eligible for increased retirement payments has survived its first major legal challenge.

U.S. District Judge Andre M. Davis of the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland   ruled that the date plaintiffDarrell Hildebrandt became eligible for the higher benefits level and his date of firing byW.R. Grace & Co. were close enough to suggest thatHildebrandt’s age drove the employee termination.

Hildebrandt, a Grace senior development manager, was informed in September 2004 that he was being let go effective November 30, 2004. At that point, Davis asserted, Hildebrandt would have been 55 and, as such, eligible for increased pension benefits for every year he worked past his 55 th birthday.

Hildebrandt sued, alleging that Grace fired him to avoid paying the higher benefits, in violation of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). The company contended the firing represented its judgment that Hildebrandt would make the least important contribution to the company in years to come. However, Davis pointed out that performance reviews did not show a problem with Hildebrandt.

The plaintiff also claimed Grace had violated the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA).

Davis noted that “the record contain[ed] more than a mere scintilla of direct evidence of discriminatory animus” – evidence included comments by the manager who informed Hildebrandt he was being fired that it was because he was about to turn 55 and that other older employees would be fired before they retired.

Grace asserted that the amount of money it would have saved in retirement benefits by terminating Hildebrandt was so miniscule it could not amount to a financial motivation to terminate him.

The case is Hildebrandt v. W.R. Grace & Co.-Conn., D. Md., No. AMD 06-1729, 6/26/07.