One of America’s largest law firms, Sidley Austin, is settling an age discrimination case with 32 of its former partners, reports the Los Angeles Times.

One of America’s largest law firms, Sidley Austin, is settling an age discrimination case with 32 of its former partners, reports the Los Angeles Times.

The case against Sidley Austin, which has more than 1,700 lawyers in 16 cities, including Los Angeles, had been closely watched because of a widely held belief in the legal profession that firm partners did not qualify for the protections of federal anti-discrimination laws because they were deemed “employers.”

But the EEOC, in a lawsuit filed in 2005, contended that the cashiered lawyers were partners in name only, because they had no voice in the firm’s management, including hiring, firing and salary decisions. Consequently, the lawyers were “employees” entitled to protections of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

The firm vigorously defended the case, but lost key preliminary rounds in U.S. District Court in Chicago and at the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court declined to review the decisions. Eventually, the Chicago-based firm decided to settle by agreeing to a consent decree without admitting wrongdoing.

However, Sidley Austin, in the consent decree, approved by U.S. District Judge James B. Zagel in Chicago on Thursday, made a significant concession, agreeing “that each person for whom the EEOC has sought relief in this matter was an employee within the meaning of” the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

The decree also includes an injunction that bars the firm from “terminating, expelling, retiring, reducing the compensation of or otherwise adversely changing the partnership status of a partner because of age,” or “maintaining any formal or informal policy or practice requiring retirement as a partner or requiring permission to continue as a partner once the partner has reached a certain age.”

John Hendrickson, the EEOC’s regional attorney in Chicago, said he thought the outcome set an important benchmark.

“Up to now, with no particularly good reason that I can discern, people in control of law firms said that if they called someone a partner … they didn’t need to worry about federal employment discrimination laws,” he said.

“What the Sidley case says is that you have evidence that people are called partners, but in reality are not active in the governance of the firm and don’t control their own destiny in the firm. You can call them whatever you want, but for the purposes of the Age Discrimination Act they are employees,” Hendrickson said.

He said the case ensured “the protection of professionals from discriminatory employment actions” and ratified the authority of the EEOC “to investigate and obtain relief for victims of age discrimination on its own initiative.”

During the litigation, the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the agency was entitled to obtain records that could show whether the lawyers should have been protected under age discrimination law.

In that key ruling, Judge Richard Posner, writing for a unanimous three-judge panel, rejected Sidley’s argument that the law did not apply to partners. Posner said he was particularly unconvinced by “Sidley’s contention that since the executive committee [of the firm] exercises its absolute power by virtue of delegation by the entire partnership in the partnership agreement, we should treat the entire partnership as if it rather than the executive committee were directing the firm. That would be like saying that if the people elect a person to be dictator for life, the government is a democracy rather than a dictatorship.”

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