SDNY Court Issues Mixed Mid-Stage Ruling in IBM Age Discrimination Case

An opinion published after the holiday weekend by Judge Valerie Caproni ruled on one of defendant International Business Machine Corporation’s (IBM) motions for summary judgment in a case over the terminations of nearly three dozen employees 40 years of age or older allegedly in violation of the Age Discrimination Employment Act (ADEA). The court agreed with IBM about certain non-merits issues, thereby limiting the arguments the plaintiffs can use going forward.

The case is one of several proceeding against IBM over its allegedly discriminatory practices that led to the termination of older employees in favor of younger ones. In one dispute, a litigant recently sought to overturn an arbitration award in view of new, “smoking gun” evidence uncovered in other age discrimination actions proceeding against the company. 

Relevant to the instant case, Judge Caproni summarized that the plaintiffs “allege that IBM pursued this goal in several ways, such as by: engaging in mass layoffs known as “Resource Actions”; terminating older employees for pretextual reasons; and constructively discharging older employees.” The class action pertains to several named plaintiffs and 34 “separation opt-ins” who filed suit without filing an administrative charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) first. Instead, they aimed to “piggyback” off the administrative charges of the four named plaintiffs.

Judge Caproni’s opinion dealt with whether the separation opt-ins could indeed piggyback off the named plaintiffs’ EEOC charges. Specifically, the court questioned whether the matters complained of by the non-filers fell within the scope of the previously filed charges in a manner sufficient to put IBM on notice of the claims against both temporally and substantively.

The court found one named plaintiffs’ EEOC charge untimely because it was filed after the cause of action accrued, about a year after the plaintiff agreed to separation by entering IBM’s “Transition to Retirement Program.” Examining the other three, the court found the allegations too vague to put IBM on notice of the charges against it.

However, Judge Caproni refused to grant summary judgment for IBM as to its contention that as a matter of law, the separation opt-ins could not piggyback on charges from named plaintiffs in other lawsuits. “Although the Court is skeptical that the Separation Opt-Ins can piggyback on the charges of Unrelated Named Plaintiffs, because IBM has failed to cite any caselaw discussing whether an opt-in may broaden the scope of a lawsuit as determined by the Named Plaintiffs’ claims, IBM’s motion is denied without prejudice on this point,” the opinion said.

The plaintiffs are represented by Lichten & Liss-Riordan P.C. and IBM by Jones Day.