The Super Bowl hopefuls have suffered an off-field setback. Two former employees of the San Francisco 49ers filed suit against the team, alleging age discrimination. 2014 proved to be a litigious year for the NFL, and 2015 isn’t letting up on lawsuits either.
According to the initial complaint about the lawsuit, the plaintiffs allege the 49ers violated the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) by discriminating against them on the basis of age. The suit names the CEO of the team, Jed York, as a defendant as well.
The two plaintiffs, Anthony Lozano, a facilities manager, and Keith Yanagi, a Director of Video Operations, were both suddenly fired in 2011. For Lozano, he had a stellar employment record, received praises from Jed York, and was named an employee of the month just a year prior. Upon his termination, 49ers Chief of Staff informed Lozano that his lay off had nothing to do with job performance but rather the team was “going in a different direction.” When asked to explain what that meant, the team had no reply. He was 56 at termination.
For Yanagi, he worked for the team for over 25 years, always receiving great reviews. In an interview, the HR manager claimed she had no idea why Yanagi had been terminated, but later retracted her statement, claiming it was for “performance” reasons. The plaintiff was 59 at the time of his termination.
Just prior to the terminations, the 49ers hired a new Chief Strategy Officer, Gideon Yu, who sought to “rebrand” the team as a technology company much like those located in Silicon Valley. Yu began using the term “legacy employees,” a derogatory term used in Silicon Valley to describe older employees. Furthermore, older employees were often subjected to comments about graying hair and questions about how much longer they intended to stay working.
Yu allegedly created and executed a systematic campaign to terminate older employees to make room for younger employees who “did a lot of cool things before they turned 40 years old, and they don’t want to go play golf six days a week.” When asked to choose between candidates for the same position, Jed York is reported to have said, “Let’s go with the younger ones.”
Defendants are further accused of masking pertinent information about group terminations in order to skirt obligations to provide something of benefit to employees which they were not already entitled to. This is mandated by the Older Workers Benefit Protection Act.