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Has IBM Found a Way Around the OWBPA and Should Others Follow?

Posted in CHRO & EEOC, Discrimination & Harassment, Human Resources (HR) Compliance, Litigation

Last week, a story caught my eye and the attention of some of my colleagues.  As reported first by Bloomberg BNA, IBM has stopped providing the comparison information that is typically required in separation agreements for older workers under the Older Workers Benefit Protection Act.

You may be wondering how that is possible.  Robin Shea, of Employment & Labor Insider beat me to the punch with a very good recap that I don’t think I can improve upon.  So I’ll cite two paragraphs below:

As you know, when an employer has a “group termination” — usually, a reduction in force, but a “group” can be as few as two people – it is required to disclose the job titles and ages of the individuals in the “decisional unit,” which means the working unit from which the decisions were made. If the employer doesn’t make the disclosures (and get ‘em right), then it can’t get a valid waiver of age discrimination claims under the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act although the waiver may be valid in other respects …..

But how can IBM do this?  They aren’t requiring employees to give up their age discrimination claims, that’s how. They’re just requiring them to use arbitration instead of the court system. Which I think is legal, based on Gilmer v. Interstate/Johnson Lane, a Supreme Court decision from the 1990′s.

In essence, IBM is using a separation agreement with two sets of rules: For all claims except age discrimination, employees must release IBM. For age discrimination claims, IBM has said that employees do not have to release IBM but must take any such claims to arbitration.

Will it work? That remains to be seen. It has yet to be challenged in court or the EEOC.

But most employers are not IBM and do not have the resources to take this strategy.

So I suspect that many employers will simply follow the path of least resistance and provide the comparison information under the OWBPA.  If done right, then employers will get the benefit of an additional release without the hassle of arbitration or the added cost.   It’s worked for many employers for over 20 years and, IBM’s strategy notwithstanding, it’s probably not worth changing gears now.

There are many good free resources for additional background on this topic. One that I would suggest was produced by the ABA in 2008 and is still highly relevant today.