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Laid-off auto engineer sues Ford

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Laid-off auto engineer sues Ford

Salaried employee, 51, claims he was forced from his job due to age discrimination.

Bryce G. Hoffman / The Detroit News

A 51-year old Metro Detroit engineer terminated by Ford Motor Co. in the latest round of layoffs is suing the automaker, claiming age discrimination.

According to the suit filed Monday in Wayne County Circuit Court, William Armstrong is one of about 4,000 Ford salaried employees who lost their jobs last month as part of the company's effort to revive its failing North American automobile operations.

Armstrong, a Bloomfield Hills resident, is also seeking class-action status for his lawsuit.

"The older employees are disproportionately affected by this," said attorney Michael Pitt, who represents Armstrong.

The suit is seeking class-action status on behalf of all general salaried rank employees and leadership level six managers who feel they were terminated because of their age. "These were the two payroll groups that were targeted by this particular policy."

Ford said it had not yet seen the lawsuit and could not comment on it specifically, but a spokeswoman defended its layoff policies.

"These actions were a necessary response to the company's current economic challenges," Ford spokeswoman Marcey Evans said. "The company adhered to the law in making these difficult decisions."

Armstrong started at Ford in 1978. A product development engineer, he spent his entire career in vehicle development in Dearborn where he specialized in noise, vibration and handling. Over the years, he worked on the Lincoln Mark VIII and Ford Thunderbird, as well as several generations of the vaunted Ford Mustang. He is particularly proud of his role in developing the signature exhaust note on the latest Mustang.

"The throaty V-8 growl that William Clay Ford Jr. claims he likes," Armstrong said. "That was my last major contribution."

As a key part of the team responsible for one of Ford's most successful products, Armstrong never worried about the looming layoffs as he set out for Ford's Arizona proving ground last month to work on the next version of the pony car. That was where his supervisor collared him after lunch, demanded that he hand over his company-issued credit card and cell phone and offered to call him a cab. Armstrong told him he would find his own way home.

"I walked out into the desert after 27 years developing their most profitable car," he said.

By the time he got back to Michigan, Armstrong had decided to hire an attorney and sue Ford.

This is not the first time Pitt has taken Ford to task -- and to court -- for what he sees as a pattern of age-based discrimination in the company. In 2003, Pitt represented another group of Ford workers who claimed they were blocked from promotions because of their age. In 2001, Ford paid $10.5 million to settle a well-publicized class-action suit brought by the Royal Oak attorney on behalf of middle managers at the automaker. That lawsuit took issue with an employee ranking system that Pitt said unfairly discriminated against older workers.

That system was later abandoned, but Pitt says Ford used a similar methodology in the latest round of layoffs.

As required by law, Ford provided each of the terminated workers with a tally of the layoffs in their department, broken down by age and job classification. It shows 192 employees in Armstrong's department that had his job classification. Only 30 were 55 or older. Of those, 40 percent were terminated in January. Of the 87 employees aged 28 to 39, 2 percent were terminated.

"These are just glaring statistics," Pitt said. "(They) prove age bias."

And Pitt expects to find a similar trend in data from other departments.

"We're asking that the court declare the policies a violation of the law and enjoin their practice," Pitt said. He is asking the court to order Armstrong's reinstatement and is seeking compensation for him and other older workers who were dismissed last month.

Ford has offered severance payments of up to a year's pay to terminated salaried workers who waive their right to sue Ford for discrimination. Those that refuse to sign will receive three months pay or less. Employees were given 45 days to decide. Those who signed the waiver can revoke their signature for up to seven days after signing.

"Employees who are not satisfied with their fate now have another option they should explore," Pitt said.

Link: http://www.detnews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/artic.../602140341/1148

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