IBM recently discontinued its longstanding practice of including in its severance packages a disclosure of the ages and job titles of the other employees it had decided to lay off. IBM made these disclosures in order to comply with the Older Workers Benefit Protection Act (OWBPA). 29 U.S.C. sec. 626(f). It has now decided to comply with the OWBPA in a different way: requiring laid off workers who accept severance packages to pursue age discrimination claims in arbitration, instead of court.
IBM has been no stranger to age discrimination lawsuits. Several years ago, it faced a class action age discrimination lawsuit which alleged that it discriminated against older workers when it instituted layoffs. More recently, a single plaintiff prevailed in an age discrimination lawsuit against IBM and received a verdict of about $2.5 million.
Arbitration is an “alternative dispute resolution” process where a privately hired arbitrator, usually a lawyer, presides over the trial and decides which party should win. Instead of a jury, the arbitrator decides both whether the defendant broke the law and how much money to award to a successful plaintiff. Many corporations have chosen to compel their employees to agree to arbitration because the corporations enjoy built-in advantages in arbitration that they do not enjoy in court. Because of these built-in advantages, many of these corporations require all employees to agree, as a condition of their employment, to pursue any claims against the corporation through arbitration.