A proposed class and collective action out of California alleges Barnes & Noble, Inc. has engaged in a “ruthless and unscrupulous purging” of employees who are age 40 or older in order to replace them with a younger workforce.
According to the case, the bookseller’s practice of terminating older workers solely because of their age constitutes discrimination under state and federal law. The suit is looking to end Barnes & Noble’s alleged discriminatory scheme and award back wages and damages to affected employees.
Barnes & Not-So-Noble?
The 16-page complaint begins by painting a picture of Barnes & Noble as a once-prosperous bookstore chain that, as the New York Times put it, “has been sliding toward oblivion for years.” According to the case, the bookseller has lost $1 billion in market value over the past five years and closed nearly 400 stores since 1997.
In August 2019, however, Barnes & Noble’s fate seemed to take a turn when it was purchased by private equity hedge fund Elliott Management Corp., the suit states. Soon after the acquisition, the retailer found itself facing a “strategic makeover” led by newly appointed CEO Achilles “James” Daunt, who the case says is well-known for rescuing British book retailer Waterstones “out of a death spiral.” Under Daunt’s direction, Barnes & Noble, the lawsuit explains, began revamping its entire image and business strategy:
In an aggressive effort to reverse its fortunes, Barnes & Noble has pursued an uncompromising course of action designed to cut costs, increase sales, and revamp its public persona from that of a stale, aging retail operation to that of a fresh and exciting literary sales enterprise.”
As part of this effort to be “fresh and exciting,” Barnes & Noble began a “campaign of age discrimination,” the case alleges, and discharged employees age 40 and older who “no longer looked the part.” According to the suit, the new corporate directive was to replace “book people” (which the case says was the defendant’s code for older workers) and hire “only sales people” – that is, younger employees.
The Plaintiff’s Experience
The plaintiff, a California woman who is older than 40, says she worked for Barnes & Noble for nearly 13 years, most recently as a community business development manager (CBDM). According to the complaint, the woman always had “glowing performance reviews” and even received an award in June 2016 for her excellent performance.
Despite her accomplishments—and the fact that she had never been disciplined or reprimanded “for any reason whatsoever”—the plaintiff was terminated in early September 2019, the case states. The plaintiff says she understood that the “formal, pretextual” reason for her termination was her failure to meet her sales goal for fiscal year 2019, though this was never fully explained to her during a closed-door meeting with her managers. The lawsuit argues that the real reason behind the plaintiff’s termination, and the discharge of many other older employees who were required to meet sales goals, was the defendant’s “discriminatory animus based on age.”
The plaintiff goes on to claim that a manager of the Emeryville, California location at which she worked was allowed and encouraged by upper management to sabotage older employees’ ability to perform their duties—and therefore their ability to make sales and keep their jobs. According to the case, the manager interfered with the plaintiff’s duties and mistreated her clients, with whom she had worked hard to build professional relationships. The plaintiff says that although she complained about the manager and communicated her concerns to a superior, the man was never disciplined.
Older Workers Replaced by Younger Staff, Suit Alleges
The plaintiff says she is aware of at least two younger employees who were hired to replace older workers in CBDM positions. Both new hires were in their early- to mid-twenties, the case states, and neither had any sales experience despite the position’s requirement of “a minimum of 2 years of outbound sales experience.”
The plaintiff, in contrast, had brought in “millions of dollars” in sales for Barnes & Noble over her 13-year tenure, the suit claims.
Lawsuit Seeks Relief for Terminated Workers
The proposed class action is seeking to end Barnes & Noble’s alleged “systematic pattern and practice” of discriminating against workers age 40 or over. Aside from injunctive relief—a court order that prohibits the defendant from further acts of discrimination—the lawsuit looks to reinstate workers age 40 or older who were discharged from their positions within the past year (and anytime between when the case was filed and the date of its final judgment). The suit also seeks to repay these workers for lost wages and damages.