Layoffs are an unfortunate occurrence in all industries nowadays and are a part of life that all too many workers have to face. Alison Ray is one of those workers. Ray was a sales director for AT&T when she was laid off.
AT&T did offer Ms. Ray a severance package, but in return she had to sign a waiver of her rights under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). After realizing she was a victim of age discrimination, Ms. Ray challenged the validity of that waiver, and a federal judge ruled last week that the waiver she signed was, indeed, invalid.
Age Discrimination in Employment Act
The ADEA is a federal law that was passed in 1967. It protects employees who are over 40 years old and work for companies with 20 or more employees from discrimination based on their age. Employers are prohibited from discriminating against older employees or creating a hostile workplace.
When Alison Ray was told she was being laid off, she was offered a choice: waive her rights under the ADEA and receive severance or receive nothing at all. She signed. After accepting her severance package, Ms. Ray realized she had indeed been a victim of age discrimination. While most people don’t bother to challenge the validity of the waivers they sign, assuming they are legal and binding, Ms. Ray decided to take on AT&T.
Under the ADEA, a valid waiver must be written in clear, concise language that is aimed at the recipient. In other words, if the person signing the waiver does not have a high school education, the waiver must avoid the use of technical language or legalese. Additionally, the waiver can be found invalid if it fails to fully inform the signer.
The specific waiver Ms. Ray signed simply stated that she was being laid off as a result of a “reduction in force.” Well, all layoffs are the result of a reduction in force. So, her lawyers argued that AT&T’s failure to include the decisional unit, or the process by which those who were being laid off were chosen, rendered the waiver invalid. Last week, a federal judge agreed.
In his ruling, Judge Timothy Rice said that the waiver “was not understandable to the average worker” and failed “to provide the average terminated employee with any meaningful information as to how the process of identifying those included in the reduction-in-force was conducted.”
As a result of the Judge’s ruling, Ms. Ray is now free to proceed with her age discrimination case against AT&T. AT&T representatives have stated that they are reviewing the ruling and dispute any claims that they discriminated on any basis, including age.