Illinois State Police Settles Age Discrimination Lawsuit
The Illinois State Police recently lost an attempt to receive a new trial after several former SWAT team members succeeded in a claim of age discrimination against their former employer. Read more about the case where older SWAT members face discrimination, and contact a knowledgeable and experienced Chicago employment attorney with any questions.
Older SWAT team members “run off” by junior members
Darren Lindsey, Mark Cameron, and Rich Pisoni, the plaintiffs in the age discrimination claim, were all members of the South SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) team, which was based in Mount Vernon, Illinois. The three men, all over 40 at the time the discrimination took place, were seasoned police officers, having been with the SWAT team or its prior iteration since 1999 at the latest. By 2010, the men began to face pushback from younger members of the team. The team split into two groups, with the older and younger members in opposing groups. One younger team member campaigned for the “older members of the team to be run off,” according to the recent court opinion, stating that the “old bosses gotta go.”
Despite the fact that the older team members held supervisory roles, younger team members showed blatant disrespect for them, including by ignoring the chain of command and going to the senior members’ superiors to complain, and in one instance, by grabbing plaintiff Pisoni’s gun barrel during an operation in violation of safety procedures. Younger team members also complained that older members didn’t support more intense physical training and suggested that older members “should observe, rather than participate in training.” The older team members repeatedly raised their concerns about this behavior with team supervisors and the captain overseeing their SWAT team, but saw no change in the younger team members’ behavior.
In June of 2011, after months of discriminatory conduct, plaintiffs Pisoni and Cameron asked to be taken off the South SWAT team, explaining that the disrespectful conduct had rendered the team “nonoperational.” One month later, plaintiff Lindsay also left SWAT. The three men retired from the Illinois State Police between 2014 and 2017. All three men lost the use of official vehicles and cell phones after being forced off the SWAT team, and two of the men received a lower pension as the result of their departure from SWAT.
Older officers file age discrimination lawsuit in federal court
The men filed a lawsuit in federal court for violations of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) against the Illinois State police in 2012. During their September 2017 trial, they testified about the discriminatory terms used toward them, such as “old guys,” “old bosses,” and “shotgunners” (in reference to the shotguns that the older officers were issued, while new officers received semiautomatic weapons). The men also produced evidence that the captain of the SWAT team repeatedly said that “SWAT ain’t a retirement home,” even going so far as to create and display a photo of himself with the caption “This ain’t no retirement home” after being made aware of the age discrimination claim. Other management referred to the men as “old guys” and explained that they wanted to create a “younger, quicker” or “younger, more athletic” team. The jury found for the plaintiffs, awarding them lost wages and benefits. The jury found that the discrimination the men faced was willful and also awarded liquidated damages in an amount equal to the lost benefits and wages.
Willful conduct of employer results in added liability
The Illinois State Police filed a motion for a new trial, arguing in part that their violation of the ADEA had not been willful. District Court Judge Staci Yandle explained in her recent opinion on the motion that an employer will be found to have acted willfully in violating the ADEA if it “knew or showed reckless disregard for the matter of whether its conduct was prohibited by the statute.” Employers who “violate the act without knowing it” should be shielded from liability, but an employer acting discriminatorily towards older workers can be found to have acted willfully even where they can’t be shown to “have been actually contemplating the ADEA at the moment of the improper employment decision.”
Judge Yandle concluded that the jury’s decision was supported by sufficient evidence that the Illinois State Police had been “recklessly indifferent to whether the hostile work environment violated the ADEA.” Judge Yandle cited the fact that SWAT team leadership continued supporting younger team members over older ones and that leadership had contributed to the age-based hostility through its comments and the captain’s “retirement home” comments and postings. Judge Yandle wrote in her opinion that the officers’ conduct towards the older men made the team “unsafe” and “unhealthful,” and that the jury was justified in finding the work conditions “so intolerable that a reasonable person would have felt compelled to ask for a demotion.”
If you or your business face issues related to age discrimination in the workplace in Illinois, get a seasoned and professional opinion on how to proceed by contacting the Chicago employment discrimination attorneys at MacDonald, Lee & Senechalle in Hoffman Estates at 847-310-0025 and in Des Plaines at 847-298-5030.