A federal lawsuit filed in U.S. Middle District Court alleges the university wrongfully terminated a former employee based on her age.
Tracey Jackson, of State College, was hired to work for the university in 1985 and earned several promotions over the next 31 years, received raises and was told in 2006 she was the “model of professional behavior.”
She was fired in 2017, and lawsuit said it was due to her age and not performance.
Paperwork on June 6, 2016 from the State College Regional Counseling Center of the State Employees’ Retirement System indicated Jackson would earn about $128,000 in her account if she worked at Penn State until she was 60 years old.
Penn State updated its Voluntary Phased Retirement Program eight days later, stating members of the SERS program could not withdraw funds until they are fully retired. Jackson was informed on June 23, 2016, that her options were to retire or be fired, and she emailed human resources on June 27, 2016, to ask about her situation, because she would turn 55 in 2017.
“I’m sure you know if I work one day in the calendar year that I turn 55, I can retire without a loss of retirement benefits,” the email said. “Retiring now would be a great financial hardship for me.” The human resources did not respond to the email, and she followed up three days later with another message that she did not want to retire or resign.
One year later, on June 23, Penn State informed the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that Jackson had chosen to retire instead of being fired, which the lawsuit said was false.
Penn State representatives have not responded to request for comment.
Jackson’s lawsuit against the university asks for more than $150,000 for pay, seniority, benefits, bonuses, raises she would have received, uncompensated sick, personal and vacation time and retirement, among other potential penalties.
The lawsuit includes nine counts against the university for wrongful and retaliatory termination under several laws, including the Age Discrimination Employment Act, Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, the State College Anti-Discrimination in Employment Ordinance, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title 42 of the United States Code.
The last two years of Jackson’s employment foreshadowed her firing, the lawsuit said, beginning in September 2014 when her direct supervisor placed her on disciplinary action for allegedly not meeting acceptable standards of performance.
In 2014 or 2015, a review of Jackson’s performance said she “exhibits difficulty understanding and interpreting information relating to new procedures,” which the lawsuit alleged was a thinly-veiled use of code words for age bias. Jackson reported to human resources in June 2015 that she felt she was being discriminated against for her age.
Jackson’s supervisor took disciplinary action against her again in February 2016 for her alleged “performance and behavior,” “lack of professionalism,” “a pattern of failing to meet deadlines” and a “lack of technical knowledge.”
The disciplinary action occurred one semester after Jackson had taken volunteered to take the team lead to move more than 400 computers from one academic department to another. The transition, according to the lawsuit, received positive reviews from Jackson’s colleagues for its execution and her helpfulness toward the academic departments.