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Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority (SEPTA), amid talk of layoffs and fare increases due to a projected $62 million budget deficit, has successfully defended an age discrimination lawsuit brought by a man who claimed he was fraudulently induced into early retirement during the transit agency’s 1996 reduction in force. An eight-member federal jury deliberated for about two hours before announcing its verdict in Heffner v. SEPTA, finding that the transit agency had not discriminated against the employee, 59-year-old Gerald Heffner, on the basis of his age. Heffner was represented by the Law Office of Alice W. Ballard. U.S. District Judge Michael M. Baylson presided over the three-day trial. The verdict was a small victory for the agency in an otherwise turbulent season. SEPTA sent layoff notices to 400 employees last week, and its board was expected to consider cutting weekend service and hiking fares 25 percent to make up for the gap in its $920 million budget for the 2005 fiscal year. State legislators adjourned their two-year session the weekend before Thanksgiving without designating funds to help ailing Pennsylvania transit agencies. At press time, Gov. Edward G. Rendell was trying to divert federal highway funds to help avoid service cuts and other remedial measures. Heffner’s lawsuit stemmed from a time when SEPTA was facing a $75 million budget shortfall. “It’s kind of like d�j� vu given the tenuous position we’re in today,” said SEPTA’s attorney, Saul H. Krenzel, who tried the case with his colleague at Saul H. Krenzel & Associates, Douglas Diaz. In 1996, SEPTA was prepared to eliminate more than 500 managerial positions as part of a reorganization plan to help end the projected deficit, according to court documents. The agency made voluntary retirement and voluntary separation programs available for a limited time. Because so many people opted to retire early or take an $8,000 buy-out, SEPTA was able to place many employees in alternative jobs within the agency. It ended up laying off only eight workers in managerial positions, Diaz said. Heffner, then 51, was notified in July 1996 that his engineering job was being eliminated. Although he qualified for early retirement, Heffner had decided not to take advantage of the option when first offered because he didn’t want to leave the transit agency, where he had worked for 27 years, according to court documents. Heffner contacted the personnel department to determine what his options were for placement elsewhere in the agency. In his lawsuit, he claimed a personnel employee told him that vacant positions were being reserved for employees who weren’t eligible for early retirement, as Heffner was, according to court documents. This was one basis for Heffner’s age discrimination claim — that he was forced to retire early. In the papers he signed accepting the early retirement option, Heffner noted he was signing “under duress,” according to court documents. But SEPTA argued that Heffner was aware that he could have pursued a job vacancy instead of early retirement. The agency also disputed what Heffner claimed the personnel employee told him, and had tried to exclude her alleged statements as hearsay. The judge allowed their admission in court, however, Diaz said. Heffner also alleged that SEPTA replaced him with two younger workers who had less seniority, according to court documents. SEPTA argued that the promotions of the two employees, ages 39 and 42 at the time, to positions at Heffner’s job level of “project management specialist,” were planned before the reduction in force began and were not considered job vacancies, according to court documents. Although the three employees’ positions had similar titles and job descriptions, the younger employees focused on power and signal projects, while Heffner specialized in demolition projects, Diaz said. “We argued they all had different work they were doing,” he explained. Heffner argued he should have been able to take one of the younger employees’ positions. The displaced worker could have been transferred to a job he held previously within the section — something Heffner was prohibited from doing under the structure of the reorganization program, explained Matthew Wolfe, who represented Heffner with Alice W. Ballard. Heffner had filed suit in the Eastern District under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, asking for his job back and $193,000 in back pay. The parties agreed that SEPTA would not pursue attorney fees or costs, and Heffner would not appeal the verdict, the lawyers said. “While it may be a singular individual discrimination case, its context is very large in the environment we’re in,” Krenzel said. “What’s important about this case is it vindicates SEPTA’s manner of proceeding when there’s a reduction in force. … Despite what many may think, SEPTA bent over backwards to see that its programs at that time were impartial and equitable.”

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