A recent ruling by the full 11th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a decision that an appellate panel had made earlier this year and also provided some clarity on which types of age discrimination claims job applicants in Georgia are and are not allowed to bring under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. The new opinion states that only employees, not employment candidates, can bring ADEA lawsuits in which they allege that the employer’s policies had a disproportionately harmful impact on older workers.
The case pitted 49-year-old Richard Villarreal against R.J. Reynolds, the company to which Villarreal applied in 2007, seeking a sales manager job. Reynolds’ hiring practices dictated filling the job for which Villarreal applied with someone who was 2-3 years removed from graduating college. The guidelines also told screeners to stay away from candidates who already had 8-10 years of experience in sales, since the employer was seeking someone who “adjusts easily to change.”
Villarreal didn’t get the job. He eventually sued for age discrimination, but two and a half years had passed between the time he applied and when he sued. The employer argued that the candidate waited too long to sue and that the law didn’t allow job candidates to pursue disparate impact claims anyway. In discrimination cases, an employee can assert either that the employer’s actions constituted disparate treatment (specifically discriminating against that employee) or disparate impact (meaning that the employer’s actions disproportionately affected people in a protected group in a negative way.)
The trial court agreed with the employer’s statute of limitations argument, concluding that Villarreal did not act quickly enough. Villarreal appealed. When you appeal a case in the federal court system, it generally means that your appeal is decided by a “panel” of three appellate judges. Your next step after that would be to ask the entire circuit court to hear your case. In this dispute, an 11th Circuit panel voted 2-1 to reverse the trial court ruling that had effectively ended Villarreal’s case, concluding that job candidates could bring disparate impact claims and that the statute of limitations had been tolled, meaning stopped, during most of the two-and-a-half-year period preceding Villarreal’s filing suit.
After that, the employer asked for a hearing by the full 11th Circuit, which sided with the trial court. The text of the ADEA, when looked at on the whole, the court concluded, clearly does not permit job applicants to bring age discrimination lawsuits alleging disparate impact because employment candidates have “no status as an employee.”
The court also concluded that, in this case, the candidate was not entitled to equitable tolling, which was the legal concept that prevented his case from being barred by the statute of limitations. Equitable tolling is only available if the employee (or job applicant) proves that he acted with appropriate diligence. In Villarreal’s case, he admitted that, for more than two years, he did nothing to follow up on his Reynolds job application. This could not possibly qualify as the required level of due diligence, the court decided.
The decision in Villarreal’s case is important in imparting two major lessons to employers, employees, and potential employees. It clarifies which types of theories of liability are available to pursue against employers, and it also highlights the importance of acting swiftly and diligently as an employee or job candidate to make sure your case doesn’t get knocked out by the statute of limitations. To make sure that you are bringing the right case and bringing it on time, talk to the hardworking Georgia age discrimination attorneys at Parks, Chesin & Walbert. Our attorneys have helped many employees and employers with age discrimination disputes, and we are here to help you with your case and ensure that all of your legal rights are protected.
To speak with one of our lawyers about your case, call 404-873-8048.
More blog posts:
Sixth Circuit Follows “Honest Belief” Rule to Reject Wal-Mart Associate’s Age Discrimination Case, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, Oct. 5, 2016
Georgia Man’s Appeal in Disparate-Impact Age Discrimination Case to Go Before 11th Circuit… Again, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, April 27, 2016
Georgia Job Applicant Allowed to Pursue Disparate-Impact Age Discrimination Claim, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, Dec. 28, 2015