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Former HP workers one small step closer to throwing one giant sueball at tech goliath

Arbitration in ongoing age bias battle can be fought together, says judge

By Rebecca Hill

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A group of ex-HP staffers who claim they were discriminated against due to their age have been granted the right to together keep fighting an arbitration case against the IT giant.

The biz tried to block them from taking joint action in the latest phase of the saga, which began back in August 2016 – a tactic it has used before – but yesterday a judge in the US denied its request.

The group in question is a subset of 49 workers who were laid off in 2015-16 and then chucked a sueball at HP, saying they had been discriminated against on the basis of their age.

Fifteen of these workers, though, had signed a release agreement in exchange for severance benefits – and this agreement included waiving their rights to file a class action suit.

Although they argue this agreement is invalid, saying it didn’t comply with the requirements of the Older Workers Benefit Protection Act because the waiver was not “knowing and voluntary”, it was a bump in the road for the wider collective legal action.

In September last year, Judge Edward Davila, in a northern California district court, said the workers who had signed the agreement had to go into arbitration to assess whether their claims were enforceable.

Following that order, the 15 filed their arbitration demand together - but HP countered that they couldn't club together because of the class waiver.

However, in an order handed down yesterday, Davila said that the company had interpreted the release agreement "too narrowly".

The pending arbitration, he said, "is not, in substance, a class arbitration", as each person is "specifically identified in the arbitration demand and the relief sought is individualized".

He added: "Nothing about the arbitration demand will prevent the arbitrator from considering facts specific to certain Arbitration Plaintiffs and making different, individualized determinations about each RA, if the circumstances so require."

However, the judge did grant HP’s request to continue to stay the wider age discrimination case until the arbitration over the release agreement is resolved, so it can be tried as a whole, rather than in two groups.

The plaintiffs had claimed the time delay could damage their case - arguing that it risked memories fading further - but the judge wasn't persuaded by these claims.

"Any prejudice that Plaintiffs stand to suffer from a stay pending arbitration is at least in part a problem of their own making," he said, because they chose to bring the lawsuit as a mixed group.

"If Plaintiffs were truly concerned about the latter being held up by the former, they could have excluded those who had signed the RA from this lawsuit."

The court has set a status conference for May 10, 2018.®

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