A former Armstrong Teasdale equity partner can continue pressing age discrimination claims against the firm over its mandatory retirement policy, a federal judge in St. Louis ruled Tuesday.
U.S. District Judge Henry Autrey shot down Armstrong Teasdale’s bid to dismiss claims brought against the Am Law 200 firm by former partner Joseph von Kaenel, now 72, under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. Von Kaenel alleges he was unfairly pushed out of the firm in 2014 under a mandatory retirement policy that requires partners to leave Armstrong Teasdale at the end of the calendar year in which they turn 70.
Armstrong Teasdale argued in a November brief that von Kaenel waited too long to lodge an age discrimination complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission—a prerequisite for bringing an age bias lawsuit in court. Von Kaenel went to the EEOC on Dec. 11, 2014, but Armstrong Teasdale maintained that by then he had missed a 180-day time limit that started in March 2014, when he was told he’d have to leave the firm at the end of the year.
In Tuesday’s ruling, Autrey rejected Armstrong Teasdale’s contention that von Kaenel missed his chance to file the EEOC claim. He wrote that von Kaenel “has set forth sufficient allegations regarding the timing of his charge of discrimination.”
Neal Perryman of Lewis Rice, one of the lead lawyers defending Armstrong Teasdale in the employment dispute, stressed in an email on Wednesday that Autrey’s ruling did not address the merits of the case.
“The ruling only deals with an argument related to the timeliness of Mr. von Kaenel’s claim,” said Perryman. ”The actions of Armstrong Teasdale were entirely lawful and we are comfortable with our position. Since this is pending litigation, we will not comment further on the case.”
A lawyer for von Kaenel, Gregory Rich of Dobson, Goldberg, Berns & Rich, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.
In his September 2016 complaint, von Kaenel asserted that under Armstrong Teasdale’s mandatory retirement policy, partners are entitled to severance for two years after retiring from the firm. But Armstrong Teasdale required outgoing partners to stop practicing law in order to collect that severance and von Kaenel, who opted to continue in private practice, was then allegedly denied that pay.
The suit alleges that, in the absence of the firm’s mandatory retirement policy, von Kaenel could have continued practicing until he was 75 and collected the severance after that.
Von Kaenel is now of counsel at Evans & Dixon in St. Louis, working in the firm’s transactional practice.
Other firms have also grappled with age bias claims stemming from their mandatory retirement policies, and more such suits are likely as the baby boom generation hits its seventh decade. In one notable case, the EEOC pursued claims about a decade ago on behalf of a group of former Sidley Austin partners allegedly demoted in light of that firm’s mandatory retirement policy.
Sidley ended up resolving that suit in 2007 with a $27.5 million settlement in which it didn’t admit to any wrongdoing.