Common Penalties Associated With Age Discrimination

Learn about the damages available if you win a lawsuit for age discrimination.

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The federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) prohibits employers from discriminating against employees or job applicants based on age, if they are at least 40 years old. Under the ADEA, no employer may discriminate based on age with respect to any term, condition, or privilege of employment — including, but not limited to, hiring, firing, promotion, layoff, compensation, benefits, job assignments, and training. The ADEA applies to private employers with 20 or more employees. It also applies to employment agencies and to labor organizations. State and local governments are also covered by the ADEA, although state employees may not sue the state for discrimination under the ADEA.

Filing an ADEA Lawsuit

If you want to sue your employer for age discrimination, you must first file a charge of discrimination at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency responsible for interpreting and enforcing the laws prohibiting discrimination, or with a state fair employment practices agency. Filing an administrative charge is a prerequisite for filing a lawsuit. 

Once you file your charge, the agency may choose to investigate your claims, try to settle the case with your employer, or litigate the case. It may also decide not to pursue your claims, in which case it will issue you a "right to sue" letter, explaining that you have met the charge-filing requirement and may file a lawsuit. (If you know you want to file a lawsuit and aren't interested in allowing the agency to pursue your claims, you may request a right to sue letter at any time.) Once you receive the letter, you have 90 days to file a lawsuit under the ADEA. That's just one reason why it's a good idea to have an attorney represent you when you file charges with the agency: The attorney will be ready to move quickly to protect your rights once the letter is issued. 

Damages Available Under the ADEA

If a court finds that an employer has violated the ADEA, the employer may be ordered to do any or all of the following:

  • Pay the employee all wages, benefits, and other forms of compensation lost as a result of the discrimination (this is called "back pay").
  • Take action to remedy the effects of the discrimination by, for example, reinstating or promoting the employee. If the court finds that such an action is warranted but impractical (for example, if the working relationship is damaged beyond repair), it may require the employer to pay front pay -- compensation for future earnings lost -- instead.
  • Pay a penalty (called "liquidated damages") equal to the total back pay award, if the employer know that its conduct was illegal or displayed reckless disregard as to whether its conduct violated the law. 
  • Pay the employee's court costs and attorney fees. 

Damages for pain and suffering, emotional distress, and similar injuries are not available under the ADEA. Nor are punitive damages, except in the form of liquidated damages, discussed above. 

Damages Available Under State Law

Although the damages an employee can be awarded under the ADEA are limited, not all states that prohibit age discrimination follow the same rules. You may be entitled to punitive damages and/or damages for emotional distress in your state. Because these two categories of damages often make up the largest part of a monetary award, you should certainly find out whether they might be available to you. 

Consult an Attorney

If you are considering filing a charge of age discrimination, you should consult with an experienced employment lawyer. A lawyer can help you assess your claims and decide whether it makes sense to sue. A lawyer can also help you with every step of the process, from trying to settle your claims informally to filing a charge, filing a lawsuit, and trying your case in court. 

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