Rockford Career College is being sued by three former employees who contend the company fired them in order to hire younger workers.
Garry Kirk, Phyllis Wallington and Rhoda Bombard – who were all older than 50 when they were fired – filed separate suits Oct. 10 in Chicago’s federal court against the college and its New York-based parent company, American Higher Education Development Corp.
The three former employees claim that in August 2012, they and most of the college staff attended a mandatory meeting with American Higher Education Development Corp.’s director, Stephen Tave, who told them that “Rockford Career College is going in a new, more youthful direction.”
Tave allegedly told them that many people would lose their jobs as part of an intentional effort to make the for-profit school more financially viable by “giving it a younger, more energetic image.”
“Over the next several weeks and months, many employees, the majority of whom were department heads, and the majority of whom were over the age of 40, were terminated and told that the college was going in a new direction and/or they no longer fit the image that the college wished to project,” the suits state.
At that time, employees who worked in admissions and student services were reportedly told to admit and retain students based on their ability to pay tuition or eligibility for student aid, regardless of the students’ qualifications.
Tave allegedly told Wallington that the admissions process was too restrictive and that she should enroll any applicant “who can breathe,” Wallington asserts in her suit.
Rockford Career College is a nationally-accredited two-year college that offers programs in the areas of business administration/accounting, information technology, paralegal, and health occupations, according to the school’s website.
At the time of their firings, Wallington was 59, and Bombard and Kirk were both 57.
Kirk was employed by college’s predecessor, Swank Educational Enterprises, as its business and accounting program director and was retained in that position when the college purchased Swank’s assets in 2003.
Bombard served as the student services specialist since 2006, and Wallington was hired as the director of admissions in 2012.
Wallington and Kirk were replaced by younger and less-qualified replacements, according to the suits, while Bombard was replaced by a Rockford Career College student.
Bombard was terminated without explanation and told that she was being let go under “the at-will policy.” Tave allegedly told Kirk and Wallington that they were being terminated because the company was moving “in a different direction.”
The three former employees are seeking lost wages, back pay, front pay and benefits.
They are also asking to be reinstated to their former positions and awarded liquidated damages for willful violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, which forbids employment discrimination against anyone older than 40.
All three plaintiffs filed complaints against the college with the Chicago District Office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, according to the lawsuits that note they were notified April 15 of their right-to-sue.
They are represented by Stephen E. Balogh and Joel M.L. Huotari with WilliamsMcCarthy LLP in Rockford.