Sprenger has a crisp understanding of age discrimination in the modern material world we live in. His firm, Sprenger and Lang, sees dozens and dozens of clients every year whose employers have mistakenly confused youth with competency, age with ability--and discrimination with disqualification.
It is clear from the kinds of cases that Sprenger and Lang have taken on over the last few years that Steven Sprenger and his colleagues do not believe that American workers have a 'best before' date.
Sprenger is a lead attorney in one of the most fascinating and complex age discrimination cases ever filed. He represents veteran American TV Writers who allege the entertainment industry essentially dumped them because they were considered to be past their peak performance years and were simply too old for primetime.
His firm took the case partly because it is challenging, but also because Sprenger truly believes that age discrimination is a serious problem. "When you meet clients who tell you how they went from being fully employed until their early 40s and then couldn't get a job and ended up filing for bankruptcy," says Sprenger, "it was easy commit to the TV Writers' case."
And it is a commitment. Sprenger and Lang have filed 23 different lawsuits against TV networks, studios, talent agencies and production companies on behalf the TV Writers over the age of 40 who allege they were sidelined strictly based on age.
The first of those legal actions ended recently with International Creative Management (ICM), a large talent agency, agreeing to pay writers 4.5 million dollars. ICM does not hire writers, but it can influence the process. Although ICM admits no wrongdoing, Sprenger says the company's decision to settlement gives the other cases strength.
"This is a very small piece of the puzzle; we think this represents maybe three or four percent of the monetary relief that we hope to recover in all the cases." says Sprenger. "That translates into over a potential $100 million. We think this settlement gives us some momentum."
The TV Writers' age discrimination complaint has highlighted the issue of ageism in the American workplace. Its notoriety, according to Sprenger, has certainly not put an end to ageist attitudes in the entertainment industry, but rather just driven some of the blatant examples underground. "Before we filed the suit you would hear things like 'there is no one on this show over 29 and that's by design', says Sprenger, "and since we filed suit there have been a few comments like that, but not as many as there were."
Somewhere between 25 and 40 percent of the work at Sprenger and Lang in Washington D.C. is connected to age discrimination cases. The firm is currently representing workers at 3M Corporation who claim they were shunted aside because of age.
There are more of these kinds of legal battles being fought in courtroom across the nation according to Sprenger's assessment of the situation. The world filled with hair dye commercials, tooth whiteners and plastic surgery shows as testament to the obsession with youth. Employers trying to keep fleet of foot and one step ahead of the competition weed out older workers to keep themselves young and fresh. At the same time, older people want to work longer because they can and because they need to.
"Raising the social security retirement age over time has caused people to need to work longer, and I think now you have a collision between that need to work longer," says Sprenger, "and this prevalent notion that people ought to be getting out of the workforce as they age. And it creates a collision of needs."
There is of course, a difference between someone believing they have been ditched because of age and proving it. Sometimes, as Sprenger has seen, employers will simply tell people they are 'flat out too old'.
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There is a lot more work to do on the TV Writers' lawsuits before it is time to start rolling the credits. The big names, the organizations that really make the decisions about writers, Disney, Viacom and Time Warner and others, have yet to be tackled. "That's where we believe the real liability is," says Sprenger.
Steven Sprenger is a member partner at Sprenger + Lang and works in the firm's Washington, D.C. office. His current cases include C.H. Robinson, Abbott Labs, TV Writers' Cases and Morgan Stanley. He also worked on Hill v. Republic of Iraq, including the trial. He received his B.A. from Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa and his J.D., with high distinction, from the University of Iowa College of Law in 1988.