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A federal appeals court has reinstated an age discrimination lawsuit filed by a worker who was the alleged victim of a “relentless and ruthless” age-based harassment campaign, in a divided opinion.
Sam Stamey, who installed wiring in cargo trailers at Forest River Inc.’s plant in Elkhart, Indiana, for more than 10 years, faced more than 1,000 age-based insults from co-workers, as well as actions including having his tool cabinet taped or glued shut, and his workstation defaced, according to Friday’s ruling by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago in Sam Stamey v. Forest River, Inc.
After efforts to have management adequately address the situation were unsuccessful, he resigned from his job in August 2018 at age 62, and filed suit against the company in U.S. District Court in South Bend, Indiana, charging violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.
The district court granted Forest River’s motion for summary judgment, concluding Mr. Stamey could not show his working conditions were so intolerable that “a reasonable person could have been compelled to resign.”
The ruling was overturned by the appeals court in a 2-1 ruling. The majority opinion said Mr. Stamey is proceeding under the theory of “constructive discharge,” that the company “effectively fired him by subjecting him to unbearable age-based discrimination.”
“This is a high hurdle for Stamey to clear,” the opinion states, citing an earlier opinion, because he must first show that “working conditions even more egregious than required for a hostile work environment.”
The majority opinion concludes that Mr. Stamey has overcome that barrier. The “unrelenting alleged verbal harassment” as well as the interference with his workplace “eventually had physical effects on Stamey,” including an inability to sleep, shaking hands, an upset stomach and feeling “depressed and humiliated,” it said.
“If it credits Stamey’s account, a jury could tally all of this evidence and conclude his working condition were sufficiently egregious to give rise to a constructive discharge,” the opinion said.
A “rational jury could also conclude that a reasonable person in his position would have believed it futile to continue seeking help from Forest River,” it said.
“Drawing every inference in Stamey’s favor, as we must on summary judgment, a rational jury could also conclude that a reasonable person in his position would have believed it futile to continue seeking help for Forest River,” the opinion said, in vacating the summary judgment and remanding the case for trial.
The dissenting opinion said the age-related harassment Mr. Stamey reported “though offensive and highly regrettable did not qualify as so intolerable that it would have forced a reasonable employee to quit.”
Mr. Stamey “also did not do enough to aid Forest River in putting an end to his co-workers’ actions, and he left before his employer could do more on his behalf,” it said.
Mr. Stamey’s attorney, Elkhart, Indiana-based Patrick F. O’Leary, said in a statement his client “is very grateful to the Appellate Court for allowing him to have his day in court. We feel that justice was done.” Forest River’s attorney had no comment.
Earlier this month, a federal appeals court overturned a lower court ruling and held a bank’s terminated, 64-year-old senior vice president provided sufficient evidence to survive summary judgment dismissing his age discrimination case.