Temple University Hospital faces ageism suit

Berkley Williams claims he was fired because he was close to receiving retirement benefits.

A former Temple University Hospital employee’s ageism lawsuit against the hospital could go to trial after a Eastern District Court of Pennsylvania Judge denied TUH’s motion for dismissal. | SYDNEY SCHAEFER / FILE PHOTO

Temple University Hospital could go to trial for a 2017 ageism lawsuit after a longtime employee was fired for playing a video game on his phone at work.

Berkley Williams, 64, who worked in the hospital’s linen department until January 2016, is suing TUH for age discrimination. TUH attempted to have the case dismissed in December 2018, but it was denied by Eastern District Court of Pennsylvania Judge Gerald A. McHugh, who wrote that there is enough evidence for Williams to argue his case.  

A summary judgment would have allowed McHugh to rule on the case without further deliberation, but Williams’ argument that “he was treated differently than other employees, is more persuasive,” McHugh wrote in a memorandum. 

Williams alleges that Joseph Julia, who managed the linen department and central distribution at the hospital, discriminated against him for his age. Williams was 61 at the time of his firing. 

Williams is asking for back pay and to be reinstated in his position, or to receive equivalent compensation, according to the initial complaint filed by Stephanie Mensing, his lawyer, in June 2017.

McHugh denied summary judgment because there are no grounds to dismiss Williams’ case out of hand, said Jerome Hoffman, a retired attorney and law professor who has taught employment law for 15 years.

“I believe a reasonable jury could infer discrimination. That’s what [McHugh] is saying,” said Hoffman, who worked for Dechert LLP, an international law firm. 

“What the judge in effect is saying is [Julia] knew [Williams] was going to retire anyhow, he’s talked about retirement and that could be construed to infer that his age played a role in the decision to discipline and terminate him,” Hoffman said.

Williams received disciplinary violations for prior incidents but testified that Julia fired him because he was close to retiring and receiving additional employment benefits from the hospital when he turned 62, six months after he was fired, Mensing wrote in her complaint. 

Kay Kyungsun Yu, who represents TUH, declined to comment. 

Between 2013 and 2016, Williams was disciplined for violations before he was fired, like improper loading of equipment, failure to pick up dirty linens and leaving a linen cart empty.

TUH follows a five-step disciplinary procedure that includes a discussion between worker and supervisor, two written warnings and a one-day suspension before a worker is terminated, according to court documents. 

Williams received a one-day suspension, the final step before firing, in April 2015, less than a year before his firing.

A TUH spokesperson declined to comment. 

Mensing argued that younger employees were not disciplined like Williams for similar incidents. 

“Younger, similarly situated individuals regularly use their cell phones and [TUH] computers for personal use, including watching videos, surfing the Internet and listening to music,” Mensing wrote in the complaint.

In a memorandum written for the court on March 12, 2018, Yu wrote that TUH had disciplined other employees 52 times since January 2011 for inappropriate cell phone usage.

Mensing wrote in an email that she is pleased the case may go to trial, but added that age discrimination suits are often difficult to win.

In July 2018, Ruth Briggs, a 13-year employee who worked in the Computer and Information Sciences Department, was awarded $850,000 from the university in an age discrimination lawsuit. A jury in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania found that Briggs was forced to resign after raising complaints about age discrimination, the Inquirer reported. 

Temple is appealing Briggs’ case to the U.S. 3rd Circuit of Appeals.

“Regardless of the jury’s verdict in Mr. Williams’ case, we hope that the university will re-evaluate their employment practices to ensure that all university employees are treated fairly and in accordance with state and federal anti-discrimination laws,” Mensing wrote.

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