Ford settles lawsuit alleging automaker targeted high-performing older workers

Phoebe Wall Howard
Detroit Free Press

Ford Motor Co. has settled a lawsuit alleging the automaker targeted high-performing older workers for elimination, the Free Press has learned.

"Lawyers on both sides of the dispute laid down their swords and worked collaboratively to reach a resolution," said Michael Pitt, lawyer for the former Ford employees. "We exchanged ideas, there was trust established and so the matter got resolved."

Pitt declined to comment further on negotiations or say how much money was involved in the settlement reached in December. Ford did not admit to any wrongdoing, Pitt said.

Prior to the settlement, Ford denied the allegations and on Sunday, the company declined to comment on the settlement, saying there was nothing to add.

The lawsuit claimed that in an attempt to slash costs and impress Wall Street, Ford fired salaried workers with flawless performance records who had been promoted, rewarded and cited for excellence but were then deemed expendable because of their age and proximity to key retirement milestones, according to the federal lawsuit filed last year.

At issue in the lawsuit was whether the methods used by then-CEO Jim Hackett in 2019 to massively downsize the company in a much-touted process called "Smart Redesign" were legal and whether the Ford board of directors signed off on a strategy to cut older workers with a plan to replace them with less qualified, cheaper and younger employees almost immediately.

From left, Former Ford employees Suzanne Twomley, Matt John, Erik Eliason, Remo Morrone and Andy Kress in downtown Royal Oak on August 4, 2021. Not pictured are Susan Quick, Ching Pei and Monica Dowhan.

Ford internal documents — unsealed in late July as part of the discovery process related to the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Michigan — appeared to reveal the motivation behind the alleged targeting.

Ford hired Boston Consulting Group to identify employees whose exit would provide the greatest cost savings, and the consultants utilized an algorithm that included employee birthdates and number of years employees had worked at the company, according to the lawsuit. 

Ford Motor Company CEO Jim Hackett talks with reporter from Detroit Free Press in his office at the Henry Ford II World Center in Dearborn on Wednesday, February 20, 2019.

Ford, after the lawsuit was filed, promised a court fight. 

"The allegations in these cases are baseless," Ford spokesman T.R. Reid said in August. "We’re vigorously challenging them."

Ford employees described to the Free Press in detail their individual experiences, which created a strong response from readers..

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Former Ford employees who accepted the settlement are Suzanne Twomley, Susan Quick, Ching Pei, Matt John, Monica Dowhan, Andy Kress, Remo Morrone and Erik Eliason.

Two additional employees, Werner Woellecke and Terry Haggerty, who filed separate age discrimination claims against Ford, took part in the settlement discussion and resolved their cases too, Pitt said.

Ching Pei and his daughter, Autumn, are seen here on April 24, 2019 for her 6th birthday at her school lunch party in Menomonie, Wisconsin. A month later, Pei was cut from his job at Ford with no notice after more than 25 years with the company. When he lost his job, Ford took his company-issued Flex that he would have used to pick up his daughter from school. He was stranded until another employee took pity and drove him. "Just talking about it makes me cry," Pei said August 2, 2021.

All former Ford workers who sued the company had strong performance records and have since found new "great" jobs in Michigan and elsewhere, Pitt said.

"People who are separated in their early 50s are able to restart a second career, there's still enough time," he said. "You're at peak experience, your skills are developed and your reputation has been made as someone with a great work ethic. You can really make a contribution to a subsequent employer. It's a phenomenon we see over and over again. People who suffer job loss in their 50s should take some comfort in that."

Michael Pitt, whose Royal Oak law firm has handled four age discrimination cases against Ford Motor Co.,  settled in December 2021 a group lawsuit involving high-performing employees. This photo was taken in 2020.

The latest case was the fourth age discrimination lawsuit the Pitt, McGehee, Palmer, Bonanni and Rivers law firm in Royal Oak had filed against Ford, and the three earlier cases were settled too. The first, which was settled for $12 million, spotlighted tactics implemented by then-CEO Jacques Nasser that targeted Ford workers. 

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Contact Phoebe Wall Howard or 313-618-1034.Follow her on Twitter@phoebesaid. Read more on Ford and sign up for our autos newsletter.