Sorry Google, But This is an Age Discrimination Lawsuit Worth Watching

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Aug 6, 2010

If you’re in HR at Google, that bad dream you keep having just came true.

“In a ruling that could have broad ramifications for workers who sue employers for age bias, the California Supreme Court has cleared the way for a former Google executive who was fired to move forward with a lawsuit accusing the company of age discrimination” reports the San Jose Mercury News.

We wrote about this earlier at TLNT and our point then is even more relevant now: Given the track record of significant, workplace-changing decisions coming out of the California legal system, this one may be worth watching closely, because it may someday have an impact on YOUR workplace.

Yes, it’s bad news for Google’s HR and legal teams, and here’s the worst of it according to the Mercury News:

The justices on Thursday unanimously upheld a San Jose appeals court’s earlier conclusion that Brian Reid, who was fired from his job as Google’s engineering director in 2004, could take his case to trial because he’d presented enough evidence, including “stray comments” from co-workers and a supervisor mocking him for his age, to make a discrimination claim.

It’s a significant victory for employees, and I’m on the management side, so it’s a significant defeat for companies,” said Dan Westman, co-chairman of the employment and labor group and a partner at San Francisco-based Morrison & Foerster LLP.”

Of course, Google says that Reid’s termination was not discriminatory and that the tech giant will defend its actions — and its famous progressive, employee-nurturing culture — in court. Just that fact alone makes this a legal case for the ages.

A key point from Brian Reid’s side is that he lost a bunch of pre-IPO Google stock options when he was terminated — 131,917, to be exact – that “he could have exercised for tens of millions of dollars in the years after Google went public in 2005.” Google stock went public at $180 per share and closed on Friday August 6 at $508.10. That puts the value for those stock options between $23.745 million and $67.027 million.

This lawsuit will also surely get into the nature of Silicon Valley’s go-go, work-around-the-clock, you-gotta-be-young-and-hip culture – and Google’s place in that culture.

As attorney Lori Ocheltree told the Mercury News of the Supreme Court decision:

It says a great deal about Google and what is going on in that company, and specifically what is going on at the head of that company and in the inner circle of that company — that young 20-year-olds don’t necessarily see a place for tremendously talented, experienced 50- and 60-year-olds.”

Google does not share statistical data on the age of its workforce, but (Google spokseperson Andrew) Pederson said the company has many older workers, whose contributions are valued equally. “Age is not a factor for us. If you can do the work, that’s all we care about.” Google asserted in court documents that Reid was fired because the program he headed was being eliminated and because of poor performance.

Stay tuned for more, because lots of people are watching this one and not just employment lawyers. A number of organizations have lined up on both sides of the case, including the AARP behind Reid and the California Employment Law Council for Google.

Probably more will get in line now that the lawsuit is proceeding because there is a huge amount at stake not just for both parties, but for the notion of what constitutes age discrimination here in the aftermath of the Great Recession when so many older workers feel they got tossed simply because they were too old and earned too much.

Yes, stay tuned for the fireworks on this one, because they should be spectacular.