Employers forced to implement voluntary separation or early retirement incentives to deal with the recent economic downturn sometimes make a no-rehire policy part of the package. There may be sound business reasons for doing so, for example, to avoid paying a salary to someone who was supposed to leave employment and is receiving separation or retirement benefits. However, employers who include a no-rehire policy as part of a separation incentive package run the risk of having to defend an age discrimination lawsuit if the policy is later applied to prevent a rehire. Recently, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") filed such a suit in federal court in New York. EEOC v. AT&T, Inc., Civil Action No. 09 Civ. 7323 (S.D.N.Y. 2009).
EEOC’s complaint alleges that, among other things, a no-rehire policy violates the Age Discrimination in Employment Act because it has an adverse impact on employees and applicants who are age 40 or older. The theory is that older employees are more likely to be denied employment under a no-hire policy because they are more likely to have accepted a voluntary separation or early retirement incentive.
Whether such a disparate impact claim is even available in the context of a failure to hire is open to question. However, EEOC has obtained a favorable decision on that issue from at least one other court. In EEOC v. Allstate Insurance, Co., (8th Cir. 2008), the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit considered a similar “no-rehire” policy that applied to “employee-agents” who were terminated as part of a corporate reorganization. Allstate’s policy prohibited the rehire of any terminated employee-agent for one year or for so long as that employee was receiving severance benefits, whichever period was longer. Ultimately, the Eighth Circuit held that the “rehire” policy was an “employment policy” and not a “hiring policy,” and that the policy was therefore subject to a disparate impact challenge under the ADEA. Allstate reportedly settled the case for $4.5 million.