By Shannon Fiecke Winona Daily News
The Lewiston-Altura school district is being sued for age discrimination.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed lawsuits against the district and nine other Minnesota districts on Monday, alleging they reduced early retirement benefits because of age, thereby violating the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967.
"The law says when a decision is based purely on age, that violates the age discrimination act, which says you can't determine benefits based on age," said Jean Kamp, a regional attorney for the commission.
She said while a district can wait to offer a retirement incentive until a certain age, it can't reduce amounts after that.
"Once you turn 55, you can't say the older you get the less you get," Kamp said.
The commission reports that the districts had plans which offered a benefit to employees who retired, either based on a lump sum or a formula with factors such as years of service and accrued sick leave. However, it says the benefit was lowered according to how old staff where when they retired.
The Lewiston-Altura suit names Gene Olstad, who retired in June 1999 and had his benefit reduced by $8,000 because he was 61.
Kamp said the commission knows of at least four other retirees who also were penalized for their age from at least June 1999 through June 2000.
The district's current master agreement only includes $12,500 in severance for staff who started prior to 1980, said Lewiston-Altura Superintendent Bruce Montplaisir, but it does not change based on age. The same amount can go into 403(b) retirement accounts for other employees, he said.
"We just try to do everything we can to treat everybody equitably and fairly," he said.
The superintendent, who started in July of 1999, said the current agreement was negotiated after he started. He said neither he nor other current school board members served in 1981 when the teachers' association asked for an early retirement incentive, which the board approved.
Olstad, who said he wasn't directly involved in teacher negotiations since the '60s and '70s, recalled a few staff complaining about the age penalty in the early retirement incentive, but said most teachers were unconcerned because they weren't of retirement age.
The former school band director said he recalled somebody in the late '90s, possibly from the state, telling districts they couldn't reduce retirement benefits according to age because it was discriminatory, which is why Lewiston-Altura changed its policy.
When somebody approached him and other teachers to tell them their benefits were discriminatory, Olstad said he was encouraged to file a complaint with the commission. He doesn't remember exactly when that occurred, but the Winona resident said he hadn't heard much about it until the commission recently contacted him to tell him it was still working on the case.
Though the commission said it made conciliatorily efforts before filing the suit, Montplaisir said the district hadn't talked to the commission since about 2000.
The superintendent said he didn't know about the lawsuit until he heard the story through the news media. In fact, when he called superintendents at other districts being sued, most had either learned of the lawsuit through him or the news media, he said. He knew of only one district whose legal council had been in contact with the commission.
Kamp said it is illegal for the commission to reveal the consolidation efforts it made, but it did have to make them in order to file.
The other districts the commission is suing are Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan, Pine River-Backus, Chisago, United South Central Public Schools (Wells), Bloomington, Blooming Prairie, Owatonna, Little Falls and St. Clair.
The commission filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota. It is asking that Lewiston-Altura compensate retirees for what they lost because of age penalization, as well as the same amount in damages, and cover the commission's legal costs and any other amount the court deems necessary.
Winona, Shannon Fiecke. "EEOC files age discrimination lawsuit against school
district." Winona Daily News. 15 September 2004. City of Winona,
Minnesota. 1 May 2008