This straightforward age bias case got a lot less straightforward when a jury awarded the 66-year-old victim in question a jaw-dropping $26 million.

Bobby Nickel was hired to work as a facilities manager for Corporate Express in 2002, and seemed to do well at the job.

After his company was bought by office supply giant Staples in 2008, though, things began to go differently.

According to Nickel, his new supervisors made it their mission to get rid of veteran employees like him who were paid more money.

How’d that play out for Nickel? He said he:

  • was frequently the butt of jokes at company meetings, and
  • was often called “old goat” and “old coot.”

Nickel claimed that a manager then asked him to resign. When he refused, he said he was forced to deal with a string of false accusations — one of which involved being suspended for stealing a 68-cent bell pepper from the company cafeteria.

A receptionist also told Nickel she was asked by management to provide a false statement regarding Nickel’s behavior. She refused.

Finally, in 2011, Nickel was fired, despite nine years of solid performance reviews.

Pushing back

Nickel sued, claiming age bias. Staples denied any wrongdoing, but a court clearly disagreed.

A jury awarded Nickel a whopping $26 million in damages — $22.8 million in punitive damage and $3.2 million in compensatory damages. Nickel’s lawyer said it’s the largest award in county history.

The lawyer also said he hopes the case puts other employers “on notice” about the consequences of age discrimination. If it means not paying tens of millions of dollars in court, employers may likely take notice.

Sindy Warren of Warren & Associates Inc. had the following to say about the case:

Takeaways: (1) Do not tolerate, encourage or participate in age-based jokes, however innocuous they may seem.  (2)  Make sure discipline is meted out in a consistent way so it cannot later be said to have been based on a protected category.

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