On June 2, 2009, the Ohio Supreme Court held that an age discrimination claim filed by a former employee of United Parcel Systems ("UPS") was barred because an earlier internal "arbitration" proceeding found that the employee had been terminated for just cause. The Court's decision in Meyer v. United Parcel Service, Inc., Slip Opinion No. 2009-Ohio-2463, highlights the importance of an appropriate internal grievance process in defending a lawsuit alleging age discrimination and offers clarification on Ohio's unique statutory framework for age discrimination claims.
UPS discharged Robert Meyer on December 1, 2003, after 25 years of employment. Meyer, a package delivery driver, had been discharged two previous times in 2003, but returned to work after filing grievances that resulted in reducing his discipline to suspension without pay. However, Meyer's grievance over his December 1 termination was denied. He appealed to the "Ohio Joint State Committee" grievance panel, which consisted of two UPS representatives and two union representatives. After a hearing, the Joint Panel found that Meyer was terminated for just cause.
Meyer filed suit against UPS within 180 days of his termination, alleging that he was terminated in retaliation for filing a workers' compensation claim. He later amended his Complaint to allege that he was terminated due to age discrimination in violation of Ohio Revised Code (R.C.) Section 4112.99. Meyer sought relief under this general provision of the Ohio Civil Rights Statute, which provides that a party who engages in discriminatory conduct prohibited by Chapter 4112 is subject to an action for civil damages, injunctive relief, or any other appropriate relief. Meyer's lawsuit sought to avoid a more specific provision of the Ohio Civil Rights Act pertaining to age discrimination, R.C. 4112.14(C). R.C. 4112.14(C) states that an employee cannot pursue a claim or seek remedies for age discrimination "in the case of discharges where the employee has available to the employee the opportunity to arbitrate the discharge or where a discharge has been arbitrated and has found to be for just cause." After a jury trial, Meyer recovered over $300,000 in back pay and damages, and was awarded attorneys' fees and reinstatement.
The First District Court of Appeals vacated the judgment, finding that Meyer's workers' compensation retaliation allegations should not have been tried by a jury and that the verdict on the age count was tainted by the improperly tried claim. The First District, however, rejected UPS' argument that Meyer's age claim was barred due to the specific statutory language barring age claims after an arbitration finding just cause for the termination.
Reversing the Court of Appeals, the Ohio Supreme Court clarified that R.C. 4112.99 serves as a "gap filling" provision under the Ohio Civil Rights Act. The Court found that filing an action under R.C. 4112.99 does not permit plaintiffs to circumvent the more specific statutory requirement barring age claims set forth in R.C. 4112.14(C). As the Court succinctly held: "pursuant to R.C. 4112.14(C) when the discharge of an employee has been arbitrated and the discharge has been found to be for just cause, the discharged employee is barred from pursuing an action for age discrimination." The Court emphasized that established grievance procedures equate with "arbitration" for purposes of R.C. 4112.14(C), when appropriate procedural safeguards and indicia of impartiality are present.
Consistent with its holding that R.C. 4112.99 serves as a "gap filling" provision under Chapter 4112, the Court signaled interest in further examining the interplay of the substantive provisions of Ohio's statutory framework for age discrimination claims, including the questions of the appropriate statutes of limitation (180 day period versus six years), varying remedies available and election of remedies. However, the Court declined to address further the interplay between the other age discrimination provisions of Chapter 4112 finding, in part, that UPS did not preserve the issue of whether Meyer's Amended Complaint for age discrimination related back to his original complaint. Accordingly, there was no dispute before the Supreme Court as to whether Meyer's Age Count was filed within the shorter 180-day period and, thus, the Court did not need to address which statute of limitations should apply.
The decision in Meyer is important in two respects. First, it indicates that Ohio employers with bona fide internal grievance-arbitration mechanisms may be able to successfully defend state law allegations of unlawful discriminatory age-based terminations by invoking the protection of R.C. 4112.14(C). Perhaps of greater import is the Court's labeling of R.C. 4112.99 as a gap-filler. This holding appears to invite employers to challenge claims generically brought under R.C. 4112.99 after the 180-day limitations period in R.C. 4112.02(N) has expired based upon statute of limitations and election of remedies grounds. As a result, Meyer may ultimately be a decision that dramatically changes the landscape of Ohio age discrimination litigation by forcing Ohio courts to re-examine the interplay of the substantive provisions of Chapter 4112.