Yesterday, the U.S. District Court in Bangor refused to dismiss a lawsuit that a group of six former University of Southern Maine employees have brought against the University of Maine System (UMS) and the Chancellor of UMS (the “Defendants”). The former employees, ranging in age from 55 to 65, claim that the Defendants discriminated against them on the basis of their age and, for one of them, on the basis of disability. The claims arose when the University of Southern Maine restructured its Career Development/Student Advising/Student Success Departments. The former employees worked in those departments but, rather than just continue to employ them in the new restructured department, the Defendants required them to go through a hiring process so they could decide whether to continue to employ them. None of the six made it through this hiring process and, consequently, the Defendants terminated them.
The former employees, represented by the Maine Employee Rights Group, have asserted claims against the Defendants under the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), the Maine Human Rights Act (MHRA), and the federal Rehabilitation Act (Rehab Act). The Defendants filed their motion to dismiss on the basis of their constitutional right to sovereign immunity under the Eleventh Amendment. They argued that the constitution prohibited individuals from bringing claims against arms of the state, like them, unless they had waived their immunity to those claims. They also argued that the Court should not permit the former employees to amend their complaint to correct the Eleventh Amendment issues in it. The former employees conceded that the Eleventh Amendment barred their MHRA claims but argued that their amended complaint contained claims that the Eleventh Amendment did not bar. So, the Court had to decide whether to allow the former employees to amend their complaint and then whether the ADEA and Rehab Act claims, as asserted in the amended complaint, could go forward.
The Court permitted the former employees to amend their complaint. It held that the Rehab Act claim, brought by one of the former employees, could go forward finding that the Defendants had waived their sovereign immunity to Rehab Act claims. With respect to the ADEA claims, which all six of the former employees had brought, the Court held that the former employees could pursue claims against the Chancellor for “prospective injunctive relief.” This means that, if the former employees prove that they suffered age discrimination, the Court can order the Chancellor to take actions to prevent the age discrimination against them from continuing.