Age Discrimination: A Cautionary Tale

An ageism case in Hawaii ends up costing a healthcare company.
Business Writers
July 23, 2012

A Hawaii-based small business that provides home health care for seniors has been ordered to pay $193,236 to a woman fired for her age.

Hawaii Healthcare Professionals, fired a then-54-year-old office coordinator named Debra Moreno in 2008 after the company founder and owner, Carolyn Frutoz-de Harne, made disparaging remarks about her, according to a complaint filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The complaint stated that Frutoz-de Harne said Moreno looked “like a bag of bones” and that she “sounds old on the telephone.” According to court papers, Frutoz-de Harne also told the manager of the Maui facility where Moreno worked that Moreno was not the type of person she wanted representing the company.

The Fallout

Moreno was fired despite reports from the manager—who actually hired and supervised the woman—that Moreno was a thorough and efficient worker. The manager relayed Frutoz-De Harne’s comments to Moreno, who then filed a discrimination charge with the EEOC.

Frutoz-de Harne dismissed the lawsuit in 2010 in an interview with Pacific Business News. “Basically, this was an age discrimination claim that has no merit,” she says. “We always have had employees ranging in age from 20 to 75.”

Frutoz-de Harne started the company in 1996 with just three employees. It’s now one of Hawaii’s largest providers of home healthcare services, with more than 150 employees statewide.

“Unfortunately, this is a scenario that we see all too often, where the employee is judged based on preconceived notions of age rather than actual performance,” said Anna Y. Park, regional attorney for the EEOC’s Los Angeles District Office, which oversees Hawaii, in a prepared statement. “The EEOC absolutely can and will hold employers accountable for this type of blatant age bias.”

Besides the nearly $200,000 award to Moreno, the judgment also requires that the company prevent future age discrimination and retaliation by developing procedures to address such claims and training all staff on their rights with respect to age discrimination and retaliation. Supervisors also must to be trained to deal with complaints. The judgment also requires the company to retain an outside equal employment opportunity coordinator and post a notice for employees regarding the judgment.

Ageism on the Rise

Nationally, discrimination claims are on the rise, with the EEOC receiving a record 99,922 filings in fiscal 2010, the highest number in the agency’s 45-year history. The agency won more than $319 million in settlements that year.

The recession makes it even likelier you could face such a claim.

“People feel like they’re up against a wall and are not being able to let go of a perceived misstep by a past employer,” said Tamara Gerrard, an employment attorney with the Honolulu law firm of Torkildson Katz Moore Hetherington & Harris, told PBN. “Even though in normal times they might have let go, they’re more likely to go after a lawsuit, so it has made it very difficult for our clients [companies] and puts employers in a really difficult situation.”

Frutoz-de Harne in 2010 said she’d spent thousands of dollars fighting the lawsuit.

“What it boils down to is hearsay from a disgruntled employee that has really had a domino effect and impacted my business,” she said.

Do you have an anti-discrimination policy? Have you had legal issues with former employees?

Business Writers