Appellate Court Decision May Lead to Discriminatory Hiring Practices

A recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit concerning federal age discrimination law is drawing sharp criticism. In Villarreal v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., a Georgia man sued R.J. Reynolds and two job search companies alleging unlawful age discrimination based on the tobacco company’s hiring policy which gave preference to younger applicants.

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) prohibits discrimination against workers over the age of 40. This includes actions such as hiring, firing, and failing to promote. Further, in certain situations an employer may have policies or practices that appear neutral, but in practice have a negative, “disparate,” impact on older employees.

Here, R.J. Reynolds’ guidelines instructed hiring managers to look for candidates with just 2 to 3 years of experience, and to avoid those with 8 to 10 years of experience. The named plaintiff, Richard Villarreal, applied for a position as a territory manager with the company when he was 49 years old, but received no response. He later filed a claim for unlawful age discrimination. While his claim being investigated, Villarreal applied five more times and was rejected each time. Statistics set forth in the appellate court opinion suggest that the tobacco company tended to hire younger workers. On appeal, the Villarreal court determined that Villarreal could not maintain his disparate impact claim against Reynolds, holding that only employees may sue based on the disparate impact of a policy or practice, not job applicants.

Three judges dissented, with Judge Beverly Martin observing that the law was designed to protect both those “adversely affected in their employment as well as those deprived of employment opportunities.” In distinguishing between older employees and older job applicants the appellate court potentially opened the door to allow companies to discriminate against older workers trying to find jobs.

Many observers believe that this case may be overturned.

For more information about age discrimination, or if you believe you may have suffered any form of employment discrimination, please contact the dedicated Georgia employment discrimination lawyers at Buckley Bala Wilson Mew LLP for an immediate case evaluation.