In Collazo v. Department of Veterans Affairs, No. 06-2678 (1st Cir. July 24, 2008), the First Circuit United States Court of Appeals held that compensatory damages for pain and suffering are not available under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. (ADEA), 29 U.S.C. § § 621-634. The appellant worked at the San Juan VA Medical Center for several years in various capacities. In August 1998, he was promoted to the position of patient services assistant. It was during this time, while the appellant was in his sixties, that he contends his supervisor threatened and directed age-discriminatory remarks at him, resulting in the appellant filing four incident reports and two VA police reports.
Several of the appellant's allegations of abuse were corroborated by co-workers and/or hospital patients. However, while the appellant was initiating his complaints, he too became the subject of patient complaints. Subsequently, after an internal investigation, the appellant was reassigned to a position with no patient contact, but the transfer did not result in change of pay grade or position description. The appellant initiated an EEO harassment complaint, alleging he suffered age discrimination in connection with his supervisor's abuse and the reassignment. A final agency decision was issued in favor of the agency. On appeal, the decision was upheld by the EEOC Office of Federal Operations. The appellant then filed suit in federal court, alleging that he suffered a hostile work environment on the basis of his age, in violation of the ADEA.
The ADEA makes it unlawful for an employer to "discharge--or otherwise discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment because of such individual's age" 29 U.S.C. § 623(a)(1). To state a claim under the ADEA, a plaintiff must establish that he "suffered an adverse job action, that this was motivated by age, and that he suffered injury as a result of it." Melendez-Arroyo v. Cutler-Hammer de P.R. Co. 273 F.3d 30, 33 (1st. Cir. 2001). The district court concluded that the appellant failed to establish a prima facie case of discrimination under the ADEA because the incidents of harassment he described were, as a matter of law, "not sufficiently severe or pervasive to support a hostile work environment claim under the ADEA."
The appellant appealed the district court decision. The court of appeals affirmed the holding, but its decision was based on other grounds. The court of appeals held that the appellant failed to state a claim upon which relief may be granted because the remedy he sought, compensatory damages for pain and suffering as a result of working in a hostile work environment based on his age, is not available under the ADEA.
Although hostile work environment claims are recognized under the ADEA, see Rivera Rodriguez v. Frito Lay Snacks Caribbean, 265 F.3d 15, 24 (1st Cir. 2001), the court asserted it is well established that compensatory damages for emotional distress and pain and suffering arising from a discriminatorily hostile or abusive environment based on age are not allowed. See Villescas v. Abraham, 311 F.3d 1253, 1260 (10th Cir. 2002) ("Congress had another opportunity to enlarge the remedies available under the federal employee ADEA when it amended Title VII and other Acts in the Civil Rights Act of 1991 to permit compensatory damages, subject to caps, and it conspicuously chose not to do so for ADEA claims."). The court pointed out that the ADEA does allow liquidated damages equal to the pecuniary losses suffered for willful violations. 29 U.S.C. § 626(b). However, since the appellant did not raise a claim for such losses, he was not entitled to an award of liquidated damages.
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Originally Published: FEDweek