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NH federal court rules against Northeast Utilities Service Co. in age bias suit

Last month, the U.S. District Court in New Hampshire ruled that a reasonable jury could determine that Northeast Utilities Service Company (NUSCO) discriminated against former employee Judith Janusz because of her age.  In particular, the court found that a reasonable jury could conclude that NUSCO subjected Janusz to an unlawful age-based hostile work environment and fired her because of her age.

Janusz began working for Public Service Company of New Hampshire (PSNH) in 1996 as a customer service representative.  She, along with all of PSNH’s other call center employees, began to work for NUSCO in 2007.  When NUSCO fired Janusz in 2010, she was in her early 60’s.

Janusz says that she started to hear people make ageist comments about her after she came under the supervision of Lori Levesque in or around 2005.  She claims that Levesque and another supervisor, David Slater, would say things to her like “are you going senile,” “I can’t believe at your age you work all these hours,” and “for someone your age, you do a lot.”  According to Janusz, if she hesitated to answer a question, Slater and another supervisor, Gary Cronin, would say things like “tough to get old.”

In August 2010, Levesque and Janusz’s team lead, Lea Francoeur, issued Janusz a verbal warning because of a disagreement between Janusz and Francoeur.  After they issued her the verbal warning, Levesque sought to have Janusz fired because she said, among other things, that she would “kill” Francoeur.  The court found that a reasonable jury could believe Janusz’s explanation that she was just joking when she said that she would “kill” Francoeur.  Janusz said that she and Francoeur commonly made mock, joking threats to each other.  For example, Janusz said that on one occasion Francoeur told Janusz that she would have to “kill” her if one of their mutual friends called in response to a voicemail Francoeur had left her and Janusz didn’t tell Francoeur.  Given this evidence, and the evidence of supervisors’ ageist comments about Janusz, the court concluded that a reasonable jury could find that NUSCO fired Janusz because of her age and not just because she supposedly threatened Francoeur.

The court also concluded that a reasonable jury could find that NUSCO subjected Janusz to a hostile work environment on the basis of her age because of all the ageist comments that Janusz said she had to endure.  Under New Hampshire state law, a jury could award Janusz compensatory damages for the emotional distress and loss of enjoyment of life she suffered as a result of NUSCO’s termination and the hostile work environment that Janusz experienced.  Janusz could also be entitled to other remedies, under both federal and New Hampshire law, such as back pay and lost benefits, and liquidated damages equal to the total of her back pay and lost benefits.

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