Former IBM employees join in suit alleging age discrimination

Former IBM employees have filed a lawsuit against the company, alleging it  didn't comply with the federal anti-age discrimination law, according to ProPublica. The lawsuit also claims IBM improperly prevents employees from teaming up to challenge their departures.

This is the second broad legal action taken against IBM since ProPublica published a report that alleged widespread age discrimination within the company.

In the new lawsuit, the ex-employees are requesting the court to throw out agreements they were required to sign with IBM to get severance pay. The agreement only allows for employees to file claims of discrimination in individual hearings before an arbitrator.

Past age discrimination lawsuits against IBM have been filed by single employees who refused to sign the agreement. These employees left without severance.

IBM has laid off or ousted around 20,000 U.S. employees ages 40 and up in the last five years, according to the ProPublica report. The analysis also found in some cases IBM used the money saved from the ousted employees to hire young replacements.

The most current lawsuit is on behalf of 60 former employees who didn't sign the severance agreement and claim they have been discriminated against due to their age. They are seeking to file their discrimination claims as a group rather than as individuals.

"IBM against one person is not a fair fight," David Webbert, a partner at Jeffrey Young, told ProPublica. "IBM against thousands of people who've been laid off because of their age, that's a legitimate legal proceeding."

In a statement to Becker's Hospital Review, Edward Barbini, vice president of corporate communications at IBM, said, "Multiple courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have rejected the plaintiff’s theories. We are confident that our arbitration clauses are legal and appropriate."

Four ex-employees are named in the lawsuit. One of them, Cheryl Witmer, started with IBM in 1984 as a program manager within the company's cloud division. In 2016, she unexpectedly received a poor job performance review and was told she was retiring, the lawsuit claims. Ms. Witmer said she felt obligated to sign the company's severance agreement.

ProPublica has reports of dozens of other similar incidents with IBM employees. In documents obtained by the publication, IBM allegedly tells employees they will be laid off, but later changes the ousting to a retirement as a way to keep layoff counts low.

For employees who are 40 years of age and older, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act requires employers to disclose job positions of those being laid off and the ages of the people holding those jobs. This is to give those employees the chance to decide if they want to pursue legal action or waive their right to do so.

Editor's note: This article was updated March 28 at 9 a.m. CDT to include a statement from IBM. 

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