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Lawsuit Reveals Code Words Employers Used to Weed Out Older Job Applicants

February 3, 2016 Workplace Discrimination

Court decision may open floodgates for more age discrimination cases

A business is hiring for a mid-level position. Which candidate do you think the company would choose, given the following options?

  1. The person in his or her mid-twenties, just entering the world of full-time professional employment for the first time. Although the applicant may lack experience, the company knows it can hire the person for a lower rate and then train him or her.
  2. The experienced worker who has been in a professional field for a decade or more. While the person may cost the company more in terms of payroll, the candidate’s experience, efficiency, and insight should provide a greater value.

The answer, of course, will vary from company to company. However, it’s probably no surprise that a lot of companies may be motivated to hire younger workers simply because they cost less.

Of course, many companies are wise to the fact that specifying an age range for new hires is a recipe for legal trouble. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t find other ways to target younger job candidates.

A recent court decision involving a company that used this tactic could open the door to more job applicants being able to sue over age discrimination.

Let’s take a look how one company found a creative way to weed out older job applicants.

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Richard Villarreal was 49 years old the first time he applied to work as a territory manager on the sales team at tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds. He never heard back after completing the online job application, so he applied again. And again.

Ultimately, he applied for the position six times. Each time, he got the same response: silence.

He complained to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and then hired a law firm.

Through his attorney, Villarreal found out that R.J. Reynolds and the staffing agency it used had a résumé review process to sort out qualified applicants.

In addition to other characteristics, the company directed the staffing agency to focus on two things:

  • Finding candidates that had been out of college two to three years
  • Avoiding candidates that had eight to ten years of sales experience

Company Tries to Skirt the Issue

Villarreal sued the company for age discrimination.

In court, Villarreal’s lawyers claimed that the company’s hiring policies had a disparate impact on people over the age of 40. They pointed out that out that of the 1,024 people hired as territory managers during the time in question, only 19 were over 40 years old.

The company attempted to get the case thrown out on a technicality. It argued that the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) only allowed current employees to bring disparate impact claims against a company.

But the court refused to throw out the case.

It stated that the language in the ADEA was unclear in respect to who was able to bring a disparate impact claim. The court turned to the EEOC’s interpretation of the ADEA, since that agency is charged with enforcing the statute. It found that the EEOC generally treats both employees and applicants the same in terms of disparate impact claims and the ADEA.

That meant that Villarreal was free to go forward with his case.

(The case discussed here is Villarreal v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.)

What It Means

This case is important because the court formally recognized job candidates’ rights to sue over age discrimination.

That means that people who have been disqualified because of their age during the hiring process may now have more means to seek justice after being unfairly denied employment.

If you feel that you’ve been the victim of age discrimination, it’s a good idea to speak to an attorney to find out about your protections under the law.

Email us at or call (267) 273-1054 for a free consultation to find out more about your rights.