Cases & Deals

R.J. Reynolds' victory in age discrimination case affirmed by Eleventh Circuit

Client(s) R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company and Pinstripe, Inc.

On October 5, 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit sitting en banc affirmed a district court's decision in favor of Jones Day client R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company (RJRT), holding that disparate-impact hiring claims are unavailable under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), and that equitable tolling does not apply when an unsuccessful job applicant does nothing to pursue his claims until being contacted by a class-action lawyer several years after the statute of limitations has expired.

Jones Day represents RJRT, and Pinstripe, Inc., against a putative collective action claiming that the Company violated the ADEA when it hired entry-level salespeople. The plaintiff sought to hold RJRT and its recruiters liable for nationwide ADEA violations, alleging both a "disparate impact" and a "disparate treatment" theory of age discrimination. The district court dismissed the plaintiff's disparate-impact claims, ruling that the ADEA does not allow such claims to be brought by applicants for employment. The court also dismissed several of the claims as untimely, rejecting the plaintiff's argument that the statute of limitations should be equitably tolled. This left only the timely disparate-treatment claims, which the plaintiff voluntarily dismissed in order to appeal to the Eleventh Circuit on the disparate-impact and timeliness issues. A divided panel of the Eleventh Circuit reversed the district court in a 2-1 vote, holding that the ADEA authorizes applicants for employment to bring disparate-impact claims, and that the plaintiff's untimely claims should be revived under the doctrine of equitable tolling. Jones Day subsequently filed a petition for rehearing en banc on behalf of RJRT, which the Eleventh Circuit granted in February 2016.

On October 5, 2016, the en banc Eleventh Circuit overturned the panel decision and ruled in favor of RJRT on both issues: By an 8-3 vote, the court affirmed the district court's ruling that the ADEA does not authorize disparate-impact claims by applicants for employment. By a 6-5 vote, the court also affirmed the district court's ruling that equitable tolling does not apply. The full court then remanded the case back to the panel to consider the plaintiff's argument that his untimely disparate-treatment claims should be revived on the theory that his discrete, unsuccessful job applications outside of the statutory filing period should be considered part of a "continuing violation" that extended into the filing period. In the meantime, the plaintiff filed a petition for certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court seeking review on both the disparate-impact and equitable-tolling issues, which the Supreme Court denied on June 26, 2017. The next day, on June 27, the Eleventh Circuit panel unanimously rejected the plaintiff's "continuing violation" argument, thereby affirming the district court's dismissal of the plaintiff's complaint and disposing of the case with all issues resolved in favor of RJRT and Pinstripe.

Villarreal v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., Case 14-12707 (11th Cir); No. 2:12-CV-0138-RWS (N.D. Ga.)