Federal judge grants collective status in suit brought by Lilly worker who claimed age bias

A 53-year-old sales representative for Indianapolis-based drugmaker Eli Lilly and Co. who says the company systematically denied promotions to qualified employees older than 40 can pursue her case as a collective action, a federal judge has ruled.

The ruling opens the door potentially to hundreds of Lilly employees over 40 years old who have been denied promotions for which they feel they were qualified since February 12, 2022.

U.S. District Judge Tanya Walton Pratt last week granted conditional collective certification in the discrimination lawsuit brought by Monica Richards, a Lilly sales representative in Massachusetts who has worked for Lilly since 2016.

Richards said she was passed over for promotion in 2022 by a 27-year-old employee with less than three years’ worth of sales experience.

In her complaint, Richards said Lilly was engaged in a “companywide effort to shift its personnel focus to millennials at the detriment of older employees, openly espousing an aggressive strategy of hiring and retaining millennial employees.”

Lilly has denied the allegations and said it does not discriminate on the basis of age, race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, national origin, protected veteran status, disability or any other legally protected status.

“Lilly is disappointed by the court’s decision granting conditional certification, but we remain confident that we will prevail and continue to deny all allegations,” the company said in a statement to IBJ. “Lilly is committed to fostering a culture of diversity and respect.”

In her ruling, Judge Pratt said Richards showed that several other employees asserted they had similar experiences, which showed “some factual nexus” that connected her to other potential plaintiffs as victims of an unlawful practice.

One of the employees is James Sweeney, a Lilly executive business manager who for 22 years helped in the hiring, recruitment and development of sales teams members and attended numerous executive level recruiting and hiring meetings.

Sweeney witnessed how senior Lilly managers would “discredit and undermine” the work of older employees being considered for promotions, he testified in an affidavit.

Sweeney indicated he was aware of at least 20 employees older than 40 who were qualified for more senior sales representative roles but were passed over for promotion.

She said Richards needed only make a “modest factual showing to demonstrate that they and potential plaintiffs together were victims of a common policy or plan that violated the law.”

Richards sued Lilly under the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act as well as the Massachusetts Anti-Discrimination Law.

Under the judge’s ruling, Richards will be allowed to send notice of the case to similarly situated employees who may opt-in as plaintiffs.

Richards was on a sales team called the Boston Primary Care District, part of Lilly’s Diabetes Business Unit, which is made up of 93 teams across the country.

In November 2021, Richards’ district sales manager unexpectedly took medical leave. Lilly asked Richards to serve as her team’s “point person” while her manager was on leave, Richards stated in her complaint.

In March 2022, the district sales manager’s medical leave became protracted, and Lilly formally appointed Richards as district sales manager on an interim basis.

“Under her leadership, the Boston Primary Care District outperformed all other 92 teams that made up Eli Lilly’s Diabetes Business Unit,” Richards’ complaint said.

The district sales manager did not recover from his illness and died. Richards interviewed to be permanent district sales manager for her team, but said the company informed her Aug. 19, 2022, that she did not get the promotion.

“During her time at Eli Lilly, (Richards) has observed numerous other older employees be passed over for promotion in favor of less-qualified younger employees,” Richards said in her complaint. “Additionally, (Richards) has observed Eli Lilly’s push to increase its focus on millennial employees, both in terms of hiring and in terms of promotion.”

By John Russell, Indianapolis Business Journal