Shannon Liss-Riordan filed a class-action lawsuit Monday on behalf of three former IBM employees who say the tech giant discriminated against them based on their age when it fired them.
Shannon Liss-Riordan has been compared to “a pit bull with a Chihuahua in its mouth.” In a career spanning almost 20 years, the Boston-based lawyer has gone after corporations that have either harmed consumers or their own employees. She’s represented workers against Amazon, Uber and Google and has styled her firm as the premier champion for employees left behind by powerful tech companies.
Now Liss-Riordan is gunning for International Business Machines.
On Monday, she filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of three former IBM employees who say the tech giant discriminated against them based on their age when it fired them. “Over the last several years, IBM has been in the process of systematically laying off older employees in order to build a younger workforce,” the former employees claim in the suit.
In the past decade, IBM has fired thousands of people in the United States, Canada and other high-wage jurisdictions in an effort to cut costs and retool its workforce after coming late to the cloud-computing and mobile-tech revolutions. A newer crop of tech giants has outpaced the company in size, revenue and prestige, and Big Blue is pushing to get back in the game.
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The waves of firings spawned a legion of disaffected former employees who congregate online to air their grievances and swap stories. To them, the firings are a mockery of the values they signed up for when joining the company. IBM has argued change in its workforce is necessary to stay fresh and competitive.
“Changes in our workforce are about skills, not age,” IBM spokesman Ed Barbini said in an emailed statement. “In fact, since 2010 there is no difference in the age of our U.S. workforce, but the skills profile of our employees has changed dramatically. That is why we have been and will continue investing heavily in employee skills and retraining — to make all of us successful in this new era of technology.”
But the company is under mounting pressure to change its behavior. In March, ProPublica published a damning report making the case that IBM systematically broke age-discrimination rules. Meanwhile, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has consolidated complaints against IBM into a single, targeted investigation, according to a person familiar with the inquiry. A spokeswoman for the EEOC declined to comment.
Liss-Riordan, a partner at Lichten & Liss-Riordan in Boston, expects many former IBM employees to join her lawsuit. “A lot is at stake for IBM — how they’re going about making these decisions for their workforce really needs to be addressed and reassessed,” Liss-Riordan said. “It will be in the thousands of people who will be affected. We think IBM should pay these employees.”
If she’s successful, IBM may be on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars in damages and may take a hit to its reputation as a company once renowned for being among the world’s most benevolent employers.
Class-action lawsuits are drawn-out processes, and there’s no guarantee that the IBM case brought Monday will be successful, or even be certified in the first place. Age discrimination is a tough issue on which to hang a class-action.