Posted July 1st, 2019.
By McCord Pagan
Law360 (July 1, 2019, 8:17 PM EDT) — A Tennessee federal judge has refused to put the brakes on class and collective claims from employees who accuse Volkswagen AG of pushing out older workers at its Chattanooga plant, saying the allegations are plausible enough to stay in court.
U.S. District Judge Travis McDonough on Friday denied the carmaker’s bid to knock out class and collective action claims in Volkswagen worker Jonathan Manlove’s suit alleging that Volkswagen’s so-called Pact for the Future laid out a policy favoring younger workers that violates the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the Tennessee Human Rights Act.
“One could plausibly infer from these allegations that the pact reflects a preference for younger workers; that the pact applies to Chattanooga; and that, through the pact, Volkswagen has discriminated against a class of older Volkswagen employees working in Chattanooga,” according to Judge McDonough’s opinion.
Manlove sued Volkswagen and affiliates in June 2018, alleging that the automaker violated U.S. age discrimination laws by instituting a plan to get rid of management positions held by older employees as part of two related strategic rebranding and labor campaigns, Transform 2025+ and Pact for the Future, respectively.
Judge McDonough tossed Volkswagen’s claims that Manlove would be unable to meet the standards for class certification, saying that based on Manlove’s arguments so far, he’ll likely be able to find common ground for older workers allegedly impacted by Volkswagen’s plans.
The challenged policy originated in Germany and was allegedly implemented by executives transferred to Tennessee for the purpose of keeping older employees from moving up, the decision said.
Several comments and actions, which include Volkswagen sending a new human resources and plant operations executive to the Chattanooga factory, the announcement of a “fundamental personnel transformation,” and Manlove being demoted three days after a press release in which an executive said the carmaker is “to become younger and slimmer,” provide enough justification to keep the claims alive, according to the opinion.
Last month, Judge McDonough granted conditional certification to a collective action of Volkswagen employees bringing age bias claims but limited the scope to those at the Chattanooga factory rather than making it nationwide. Manlove hasn’t yet asked for class certification for his claims under the Tennessee Human Rights Act.
“Volkswagen’s motion to strike class claims is the latest in a long line of transparent attempts to prevent workers from joining together to oppose unlawful age discrimination,” Kevin Sharp of Sanford Heisler Sharp LLP told Law360.
“The court’s order denying Volkswagen’s motion recognized the core class claim at the heart of this case, and is an important step in safeguarding the rights of employees to stand up against powerful corporations.”
A representative for Volkswagen declined to comment Monday.
The workers are represented by Kevin Sharp, Leigh Anne St. Charles and Andrew Melzer of Sanford Heisler Sharp LLP.
Volkswagen is represented by Charles B. Lee, Bradford G. Harvey, Megan B. Welton and Jessica Malloy-Thorpe of Miller & Martin PLLC, Michael W. Johnston and Rebecca Cole Moore of King & Spalding LLP, and William B. Monahan and Julia M. Jordan of Sullivan & Cromwell LLP.
The case is Manlove v. Volkswagen AG et al., case number 1:18-cv-00145, in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee.
–Additional reporting by Danielle Nichole Smith and Braden Campbell. Editing by Bruce Goldman.