EEOC Brings Suit that Could Affect Partnership Age Limits

A suit filed last week by federal civil-rights lawyers could change the way aging partners are treated in CPA firms and other private practices that attempt to drive out older partners.

The suit was filed Thursday against Chicago-based Sidley Austin Brown & Wood, one of the nation's largest law firms, alleging age discrimination in a case that could sharply curtail the ability of private partnerships to force out older members, the Chicago Tribune reported.

The suit by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission challenges the assumption that partners are not protected by anti-discrimination laws because they are owners rather than employees, the Tribune reported.

The suit stems from a 1999 action by the firm's managing partners to reduce its ranks by 31 partners who were then over age 40. The 31 partners were stripped of their equity and forced to take salaried positions as "senior counsel" or "counsel" or retire, the Tribune reported, adding that the firm also lowered its mandatory retirement age from 65 to between 60 and 65, according to EEOC officials.

Experts watching the case predict that a ruling could have a far-reaching impact for hundreds of thousands of professionals working in fields from law and accounting to investment banking and medicine.

"It could significantly restrict the ability of any large partnership to be able to force people out or reduce their compensation," Steven Greenberger, professor of law and associate dean at DePaul University College of Law told the Tribune.

Sidley, with more than 1,400 lawyers on three continents, issued a statement Thursday saying it "has always been committed to a policy of equal opportunity and non-discrimination. We will vigorously defend against the EEOC action, which has no merit," the firm's spokesman said.

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