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Florida Power settles age bias cases

Florida Power Corp. has reached a tentative settlement with 114 of the 117 former employees who had sued the company for age discrimination.

The St. Petersburg utility and the plaintiffs' attorneys declined to disclose the amount of the confidential settlement, which was reached with the help of a mediator.

"There are a few procedural steps remaining but it's settled," Florida Power spokesman Aaron Perlut said. "We felt this was the best solution for both parties. Instead of drawing this process out, we're able to put it behind us and focus on our business and our customers."

Perlut added that, "The bottom line is, Florida Power has never discriminated against its employees . . . We believe the law supported our position."

Scott Charlton, a Tampa attorney who represented the former employees together with Ocala lawyer Eddie Scott, said he was pleased with the settlement.

"We are happy that we were able to resolve it in a way that was satisfactory for the clients," Charlton said. "Both sides worked very hard in the mediation process."

The U.S. Supreme Court had rejected a broad class-action suit in the same dispute in April. In August, Florida Power won the first of 11 planned age-discrimination suits against the utility in U.S. District Court in Ocala. The following month, U.S. District Judge William Terrell Hodges rejected a request from the 12 plaintiffs in the first trial for a retrial. Terrell later suggested that the two sides submit to mediation. After entering into talks with mediator Michael Smith, a partner in the Pensacola law firm of Wilson, Harrell, Smith & Farrington, the two sides reached a tentative settlement earlier this month.

The layoffs in dispute were part of Florida Power's efforts to streamline its operations in the mid-1990s, partly out of expectations that the Florida electricity market would be deregulated, which hasn't yet happened. Of 564 employees let go between 1993 and 1995, about three-quarters were over age 40, according to the plaintiffs' attorneys.

Thomas Hays, one of the three former Florida Power employees who declined to join the settlement, praised the work of the plaintiffs' attorneys in court but criticized the size of the settlement as inadequate. He said he had heard that the settlement totaled $5.3-million.

Hays, 58, worked as a technical training instructor at Florida Power for 14 years until he was terminated in 1995, even though, he claims, younger, less experienced employees were kept on.

Although Florida Power said it was eliminating his position, the company offered to hire him back seven months later in the same job, Hays said. He said he didn't accept the offer because, among other factors, the company wouldn't honor his request for a letter of apology for his termination and it wouldn't provide assurances that he wouldn't be terminated again within 90 days.

Hays said he plans to continue his suit against the utility, saying, "there's no way you can give up."

_ Louis Hau can be reached at hausptimes.com or (813) 226-3404.

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