Older worker can sue for ‘hostile environment’ at work

A 65-year-old salesman at a Chevrolet dealership who claimed he quit his job because he was verbally abused and intimidated at work can sue for age discrimination, according to a federal appeals court in New Orleans.

Even though the employee wasn’t fired or demoted, and didn’t suffer any other sort of specific adverse job action, he can still sue if his employer allowed a “hostile environment” at work such that keeping his job was intolerable, the court said.

The man claimed he was repeatedly called “pops” and “old man,” was the subject of profanities, and was treated with extreme disrespect because of his age.

While the dealership didn’t actually fire the man because he was old, if it allowed him to be abused and mistreated in this way, it effectively fired him, according to the court.

The idea of a “hostile environment” lawsuit originated with sex harassment cases. Even after sex discrimination was outlawed in the 1960s, many people still believed that it was okay to engage in sexually inappropriate touching and comments at work, as long as the victim wasn’t actually fired or demoted. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the U.S. Supreme Court made clear that allowing a sexually hostile environment at work was a form of sex discrimination.

As to whether a “hostile environment” for older workers is a form of age discrimination, not every court thinks so, but a growing number of them are allowing this type of lawsuit.