Julianne Taaffe and Kathryn Moon had been teaching English language skills to foreign students for decades at Ohio State University when they and their co-workers were jolted by a particularly blunt email.
The email, from their boss to a colleague at another university, said Taaffe and her fellow teachers were "an extraordinarily change-averse population of people almost all of whom are over 50, contemplating retirement (or not), and it's like herding hippos." "It was completely unexpected," said Taaffe, 60, who worked for nearly three decades helping undergraduate and graduate students from other countries master speaking, reading and writing in English. Like many prominent universities, Ohio State has a large contingent of international students; nearly 10 percent of the almost 60,000 students on its sprawling Columbus campus are foreigners.
The teachers, who did not have tenure, were surprised to read the 2010 email, which was shared with them by the recipient at the other university. But it confirmed an increasingly sour atmosphere at Ohio State. Veteran teachers, Taaffe said, began to see younger, less experienced people promoted instead of them.
And that was only the beginning of what she, Moon and others describe as a yearslong pattern of age discrimination and retaliation that affected their teaching duties, pay, working conditions, and even their retirements.
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A new boss
In 2013, the department got a new boss, Robert A. Eckhart. Taaffe remembers clearly when she met with him for her annual performance review. His first question, she said, was: "How long have you been around here anyway?" The previous director had rated her five stars out of a possible six, but Eckhart said he was lowering that, even though he had never observed her classroom teaching.
"When I asked him why, he said, 'It's too high,'" recalled Taaffe, who started teaching at Ohio State in 1987. "He kept insisting that my teaching wasn't that good." When she responded that she might need to talk to someone, maybe a lawyer, about the sudden downgrade, Eckhart responded: "I love lawyers." Eventually, Taaffe and Moon, 65, both of whom retired from the university short of their full retirement benefits, decided to challenge their treatment as unlawful age discrimination.
In legal papers filed recently by Ohio State's lawyer, Catherine L. Strauss, of Ice Miller, a Columbus firm, the university argued that its employees are not covered by federal discrimination law.
Chris Davey, a spokesman for the university, said he could not discuss pending litigation. Eckhart was not made available for comment.
Such complaints are far from unusual as many older workers are encountering harsh treatment in the workplace. Employers often seek to save money by paring workers who have higher salaries and richer benefits. A 2013 survey by AARP, "Staying Ahead of the Curve," questioned 1,500 older workers; 92 percent responded that they viewed bias against older workers as "very" or "somewhat" commonplace.
The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, which was meant to be a bulwark against such discrimination, has too many loopholes to be able to curb such bias, said Patricia G. Barnes, a lawyer and the author of "Overcoming Age Discrimination in Employment." She added that its effectiveness had been undercut by a handful of Supreme Court rulings.
"There is also a general hostility in society and in the courts to such claims," she said.
Age bias cases are typically contentious, in part because they often involve people who know one another and have worked closely together for years. They are difficult to prove because there is rarely a "smoking gun" that definitively shows that an adverse personnel step is taken only to jettison or demote an older worker.
Instead, said Daniel B. Kohrman, a lawyer with AARP Foundation Litigation who is working on the teachers' lawsuit, other reasons, like a reorganization, are often cited as legitimate reasons for letting older workers go.
"It is even harder to convince the court to reinstate someone to a job where there has been a dispute in the workplace," Kohrman said. "It's hard to uncrack that egg." As more people over 60 continue to work, claims of age discrimination are plentiful. Last year, more than 21,000 age discrimination complaints were filed at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. But only a handful have gone to court.
In academia, "efforts to drive older staff out of their jobs have become common," Kohrman argued, especially after a 2000 Supreme Court ruling denied money damages in cases against state agencies, which include public universities.
Even finding a lawyer in such cases can be difficult when there is no money -- only the possibility of reinstatement and legal fees -- to be recovered.
In 2009, the Supreme Court made it even harder for an employee to challenge a demotion or dismissal because of age, ruling that the claimant must show that age was the motivating factor.
'Particularly blatant' case
Despite all the obstacles, Kohrman said, the AARP is providing assistance to the case against Ohio State because it was "particularly blatant." The events and remarks, he noted, occurred repeatedly over a long period.
According to legal documents, Eckhart, who now has another job at Ohio State, disparaged the teachers' technology knowledge. He moved more than a dozen teachers from individual offices to smaller, open work spaces and required them to use communal computers rather than having one at their desk.
He also called one employee "an old lady who can't walk," and another "the Grim Reaper," according to the lawsuit. He referred to other older workers as "dead wood" and "millstones around my neck," it said.
Taaffe filed her original complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in May 2014. At the same time, she also wrote university officials in detail about the teachers' treatment, saying Eckhart "treats all questioning of his decisions as personal attacks on him." Some co-workers, including Sheri L. Gangluff, 57, who has left the program for a job overseas, also filed written complaints. Several suggested that the university's hierarchy appeared to condone the actions taken against the teachers, who are called academic program specialists at Ohio State.
A university inquiry cleared the managers involved. In a report later in 2014, E. Keith Calloway, who worked for the human resources office, found only that communication with the teachers was lacking, which forced them to rely on the "grapevine" for information. The report recommended enhancing "communication, diversity and leadership skills." Within days, Taaffe, Moon and other teachers said, they were demoted to lecturers, positions with less pay and no sick leave or other benefits.
Since they left the university, their careers have essentially ended, they said. Lack of a salary "has been very hard," said Taaffe, and the nearest job possibility was a three-hour drive away.
Any trial will not occur for at least a year.
Moon, who said she no longer "has the heart for teaching," described her first 29 years at Ohio State as like working with "an extended family." "We celebrated birthdays, weddings, babies and other successes, and cried together over losses," she said. But during the last two years, "watching older employees be patronized, stereotyped, maligned and mistreated was extremely painful," she said.
"They ask us to live up to all these high and noble values," she added, "but the university itself is not living up to them."