Kimberly Zanni, a 31-year-old-account executive, was fired and replaced by an older, less qualified woman. One supervisor had told Zanni that she sounded too young on the phone and that her clients wanted an older account exec.
She sued for age discrimination under Michigan's Civil Rights Act and the state court of appeals let the case go to trial. The court said the state law, which forbids bias on the basis of "chronological age," covers employees under 40, too. (Zanni v. Medaphis Physician Services Corp., No. 206245, Mich. Ct. of App., 2000)
Michigan isn't alone. Last year, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that its state law protected a 25-year-old bank VP who was fired after the big boss discovered his age. Maine, New York and Oregon also have allowed youth-based discrimination claims. Under federal law, employees must be over 40 to file an age-bias lawsuit. But laws in the five states mentioned above, and about 15 others, don't include a minimum age at which legal protection begins. They either set no minimum or define "age" as older than 18.
Advice: This trend is still in its infancy, but it will catch on. You can avoid even the threat of legal trouble by basing any hiring, firing or promotion decisions on merit and experience, not on either end of the age spectrum.