Former State Attorney General Sues Law Schools for Age Discrimination

In the summer of 2011, former North Dakota Attorney General Nicholas Spaeth filed a dramatic age discrimination suit against six U.S. law schools, including Michigan State University College of Law. Spaeth alleged that the schools passed over his applications for employment, instead hiring younger, less qualified candidates as law professors in violation of the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act, known as the ADEA.

Spaeth, who is in his early 60s, has a long, distinguished legal career that includes a law degree from Stanford, a stint as a law clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court, service as the North Dakota Attorney General, law-professor experience and a Rhodes scholarship. He reportedly applied unsuccessfully to teach at more than 100 law schools.

The ADEA

Broadly, the ADEA forbids an employer from treating an applicant or employee with less favor because he or she is age 40 or older. Age discrimination can occur in any aspect of a job like unequal pay, promotion, termination, benefits and so on. Harassment based on age is also illegal such as frequent negative comments about someone's age. Retaliation at work against people who complain of discrimination or support other persons' discrimination claims is also unlawful.

The Lawsuit

As a requirement for bringing his ADEA claim in court, the plaintiff first filed an age discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency responsible for enforcing the nation's discrimination laws. After the EEOC gave him a Notice-of-Right-to-Sue, Spaeth filed his lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. He asked for a court order requiring the defendant law schools to offer him tenured teaching positions, for lost wages and for other damages, fees, costs and interest.

Severance and Transfer

In February 2012, Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle found that the defendant law schools were not properly joined together in Spaeth's suit in the District of Columbia federal venue. Judge Huvelle severed four of the claims into new, individual cases, including the suit against Michigan State. She reasoned that the individual law schools could be prejudiced if the same jury found against any one of them; that the schools acted independently of each other toward Spaeth, without any "concerted action" or conspiracy; that he did not allege any joint liability among the schools; and that they did not take the alleged actions in the same location.

The court gave Spaeth's choice of the District of Columbia venue little weight since he lives in Missouri.

The MSU College of Law Defendant

Michigan State told the court it wanted the case against it transferred to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan, the district where the school is located in East Lansing. The court noted that the decision not to interview or hire Spaeth was made on campus, so that was where the claim arose. Litigating the case there would be more convenient for the defendant and witnesses. Finally, the court gave weight to the public interest factor that a local dispute should be decided in that locale's forum.

Accordingly, the court transferred the case against Michigan State to the U.S. District Court in East Lansing, and the rest of the severed cases to their respective home districts for trial. Michigan State has denied that it has engaged in any illegal employment discrimination.

If you experience negative treatment at work or in response to a job application that you believe is related to your age, speak with an experienced employment law attorney about your rights and potential legal remedies.