Justice Delayed is Justice Denied in Baltimore

prison guardHow can an employer engage in blatant age discrimination for years and completely escape the consequences of its action?

A federal judge last month agreed that Baltimore County illegally discriminated against correctional officers on the basis of age but refused to order monetary damages, which were estimated at more than $19 million.

Judge Richard D. Bennett cited the  “extreme” “troubling” and “unreasonable” delay in pursing the case by the plaintiffs’ attorney, the  U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The EEOC in 1999 and 2000 issued notices of charges of discrimination to the county on behalf of two Baltimore correctional officers who alleged the County’s pension plan discriminated against them based on their ages. The County denied the charges. The EEOC apparently put the matter on a back burner for five and a half years.

Finally, in March 2006 the EEOC issued a notice to Baltimore County that it’s pension plan violated the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967. After failing to reach a settlement, the EEOC filed the equivalent of a class action lawsuit against the County in September 2007.

Of course, the case took many  wrong turns and dead ends in the federal court system that Judge Bennett failed to note. One might conclude these delays also were troubling and extreme.

In 2009, the case  was dismissed altogether when U.S. District Judge Benson E. Legg ruled the higher rates charged to older workers were “motivated not by age, but by the pension status – i.e. the number of years until retirement eligibility – of older new hires.”  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit rejected Legg’s  tortured reasoning in 2010 and reinstated the case.Meanwhile the County and the other defendants –  six unions for the correctional officers –  negotiated a new rate plan that will become  completely age neutral on July 21, 2018. The defendants presented the plan to the EEOC, which signed a  settlement. Except the EEOC reserved the right to seek damages on behalf of the plaintiffs.

In a hearing in July, the EEOC argued the Court was obligated to assess retroactive and monetary relief to correctional officers who were forced to make “excessive contributions” to the  County pension plan from 1996 to 2018.

In his ruling, Judge Bennett took the position that it would be unfair to the County to assess monetary damages in the case because of the EEOC’s delay in prosecuting the matter. According to Bennett: “[E]ach month the EEOC did not apprise [the County] of its continuing interest in the case likely led [the County] to believe, with increasing certainty, that it had avoided litigation…   In light of the extreme circumstances present here, retroactive monetary relief will not be available.”

And so thousands of Baltimore correctional officers are deprived of the very minimum they might have expected from America’s troubled federal court system – reimbursement for excessive contributions they were forced to make to Baltimore County’s discriminatory pension plan.

Is this injustice the result of a narrow and unfair ruling by a federal judge with lifetime tenure, effective malpractice by the EEOC, or it is a federal court system that doesn’t work as it should for real people?  For the poorly paid Baltimore correctional officers who suffered age discrimination for years and who are now entering their retirement years, this is a distinction without a difference.

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