Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) Fails to Account for Emotional Distress Damages

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) and the Fair Employment Practices Act of Massachusetts prohibit employers from discriminating against workers 40 years old or older based on age. A key, often overlooked, difference between these two statutes exists. Unlike the Fair Employment Practices Act, employers that wrongfully discriminate against employees based on age are not responsible for compensatory damages for pain and suffering. The First Circuit in Collazo v. Nicholson recently held that such recovery is not available under the ADEA. In doing so, however, the court also noted Section 626(b)’s broad language allowing federal courts to award “such legal or equitable relief as may be appropriate to effectuate the purposes of the Act.”

Courts have interpreted Section 626(b)’s broad language to include such injunctive relief as reinstatement or promotion where necessary to effectuate the ADEA’s purpose. For whatever reason, courts continue to deny those who suffer discrimination the right to recover emotional distress damages under Section 626(b). Failing to consider the upheaval and devastation that can result from an unlawful termination constitutes a cramped interpretation of the statute.

Imagine that you just turned 55 years old. You have been with your company since graduating from college. Your son or daughter just entered college. Tuition is steep, but you’ve planned for this and feel ready. Your company recently appointed a bright, young CEO. During a staff meeting, the new CEO comments that the average age of employees at your company is 55. What the CEO says next is somewhat troubling: “We need young talent with fresh ideas.” Despite your stellar performance and the company’s well-known financial success, you find yourself terminated months later under the auspices of a re-organization.

For the first time in a very long time, your future is unclear. Despite your hard work and dedication, goals that you were poised to achieve are suddenly out of reach. You break the news to your child that s/he will need to transfer to a local university where the tuition is less expensive. Months pass with no comparable job offer. You and your spouse come to the realization that the mortgage payments are just too much. Relocation becomes necessary. The resulting financial turmoil has placed a great deal of stress on your marriage. You and your spouse begin to attend marriage counseling.

Unfortunately, the fact pattern described above is not uncommon. An Business Week article entitled Would We Fire Older Workers If We Could? paints an insightful picture of the uphill battle that older workers face. The emotional trauma that can result from age discrimination and losing one’s job is not far fetched. Section 626(b) explicitly calls for equitable relief. To effectuate the purpose of the ADEA, equitable relief should be interpreted to include compensatory damages for pain and suffering.