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A federal appeals court in Chicago ruled on Feb. 17 that Sidley Austin may be held liable for monetary damages in an age discrimination case filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). In a unanimous decision by a three-judge panel, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that in addition to seeking an injunction against the 1,584-attorney firm regarding its mandatory retirement policy, the EEOC can pursue money damages for attorneys who claim that the firm unlawfully stripped them of their partnership status or forced them to retire. The decision in EEOC v. Sidley Austin, No. 06-8002, means that the firm could have to pay millions of dollars to at least 45 attorneys affected by its retirement policy, if a trial court finds that it violated the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). The central issue at stake in the case, which other law firms are closely watching, is whether the partners functioned as employees in the firm, which would make the firm subject to the ADEA. EEOC attorney Laurie Elkin said she was not surprised by the appeals court decision, which affirmed a federal district court ruling. “The case is going to move vigorously forward, ” Elkin said. Sidley Austin had no comment. The decision, written by Judge Richard Posner, was rendered in the middle of the case, an unusual appeals procedure. Also on the panel were judges Frank H. Easterbrook and Diane P. Wood.

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