Dinobabies latest: IBM settles with widow of exec who killed himself after layoff

Big Blue certainly seems blue about letting any of these claims go to trial

IBM has settled an age-discrimination case brought by the widow of a sales executive who took his own life after being laid off by the IT giant.

Denise Lohnn and Big Blue reached a tentative agreement on March 31, and US District Judge Lewis Liman stayed the case pending a decision on whether sensitive documents at the heart of the legal battle would be made public.

Lohnn claimed her husband Jorgen killed himself directly as a result of being unfairly laid off in 2016 at the age of 57 after 15 years of service at IBM. On Monday, the court dismissed the case as settled.

That settlement was, funnily enough, brokered about a month after the unsealing of partially redacted internal IBM communications disparaging older Big Blue employees as "Dinobabies" and calling for their extinction at the company [PDF].

Another document [PDF] discussed IBM's "dated maternal workforce" and called for that to change. It also called for IBM to "shift headcount mix towards greater percent of early professional hires."

The emergence of those court filings in February prompted IBM's chief human resources Officer Nickle LaMoreaux to deny that IBM has systematically made an effort to oust older employees, as numerous lawsuits have claimed.

Discrimination of any kind is entirely against our culture

"Discrimination of any kind is entirely against our culture and who we are at IBM, and there was (and is) no systemic age discrimination at our company," said LaMoreaux in a public statement posted to the company's website that sparked skepticism in internal employee discussions.

Many lawsuits have argued to the contrary – based on plaintiffs' claims, on a March 2018 report by ProPublica and Mother Jones that described a company-wide plan to de-age IBM, and on the 2020 finding by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) that IBM executives had encouraged managers to get rid of older workers while hiring younger ones.

As with the Lohnn case, if IBM can't get a judge to throw out someone's age-discrimination claims at an early stage, the tech goliath will eventually settle seemingly to avoid a public trial that might expose potentially damaging documents.

Langley v. IBM settled in 2020, after a judge's order to turn over executive emails. So did Schenfeld v. IBM, also after an order to turn over executive emails. Iacano v. IBM, Keebaugh v. IBM, and VanDeWeghe vs. IBM, all age discrimination claims, also settled [PDFs].

In 2019, IBM agreed a deal with 281 people out of 285 in the UK who brought age discrimination claims.

Another 26 people in the US who claimed IBM discriminated against them because of their age were disallowed in June from participating in an ongoing class-action claim, Rusis v. IBM, because they had previously signed an arbitration agreement with Big Blue.

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On Monday in the Lohnn case, in conjunction with Lohnn and IBM both agreeing to end their legal fight [PDF], Judge Liman issued an opinion and order addressing whether the declarations and exhibits filed during the litigation will remain under seal or whether they will be made available, with limited redactions.

Because the court will not rule on the now settled dispute between the two parties, the judge asserts there's little value in making those documents available as they won't serve to help the public assess the court's function under Article III of the US Constitution.

"There is not now any public interest in access to documents that might form the basis of a judicial decision," the judge wrote in his opinion [PDF], adding that the court also has a countervailing interest against disclosure for the sake of encouraging a settlement.

Members of the public interested in what IBM executives actually said will have to be content with the redacted text that surfaced in February for the time being.

Or almost. There was a court filing [PDF] in the Schenfeld case that described email evidence related to the "dinobabies" email cited in the Lohnn case. It identified the author of the email, and said that former IBM CEO Ginny Rometty, and former SVP for Human Resources Diane Gherson were among those involved in discussions that reveal "an interest at the then CEO-level to change the profile of IBM employees so that it reflected a younger workforce."

IBM did not respond to a request for comment. ®

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