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General Mills Must Face ADEA Claims in Court

MINNEAPOLIS (CN) - A group of former General Mills employees will have their ADEA claims heard in court, after a federal judge determined their severance agreements do not compel arbitration.

In a complaint filed on Feb. 11, 2015, the former employees -- all of whom are over the age of 40 -- claim that a massive layoff announced three years earlier and called "Project Refuel" unfairly targeted older employees.

In all, they said, about 850 workers were furloughed, only to be replaced by younger workers.

Over 30 of the former employees signed release agreements in 2012 as layoffs moved forward waiving their rights to bring claims against General Mills for alleged violations of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

But doubts about the validity of those pacts led U.S. District Judge John Tunheim to deny the company's request for dismissal of their lawsuit.

In rendering his decision, Judge Tunheim leaned heavily on a different anti-discrimination law, the Older Workers Benefits Protection Act, which he said "mandates that a dispute like this one be heard in a 'court of competent jurisdiction.'"

The full test of section 626(f)(3) of the Act states "the party asserting the validity of a waiver shall have the burden of proving in a court of competent jurisdiction that a waiver was knowing and voluntary."

The requirements for a "knowing and voluntary" release under the Act include advising employees to consult with an attorney before signing the release agreement, as well as giving employees 21 days to consider the agreement.

Judge Tunheim wrote: "[T]he plain language in Section 626(f)(3) - using the term 'shall' in particular - is markedly different from ... other provisions in the ADEA. ... The Court presumes Congress intended to give different words different meaning, and that where a word like 'shall' is included in some provisions and not others, that choice was deliberate."

General Mills argued that even the inclusion of "shall" in the provision does not clearly require the plaintiffs' claims to be heard in court, but Tunheim disagreed.

He wrote: "While it is true that Section 626(f)(3) is not as explicit as some provisions that preclude arbitration, the provision should also be viewed in the context of the OWBPA and its history, more broadly. When viewed in context, it is clear that Congress wanted courts to interpret and apply the OWBPA waiver provisions at Section 626(f)(1), to ensure waivers meet their requirements."

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