NEW YORK — A former Belk Inc. division chief thinks that his one-time employer downsized beyond the statutory limit, and he’s filed an age discrimination suit against the firm to make his point.

David Hines, who was president of Belk’s northern division from November 2000 until August 2002, filed suit in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, Md., this month alleging that his termination at the age of 53 violated the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. The plaintiff, now a resident of Delaware, is seeking $4 million in damages, plus interest and expenses.

Court papers allege that Hines "was treated differently than younger employees and denied the opportunity for another position in favor of a person of younger age but less experience." Furthermore, it claims that Belk’s reorganization last year "was aimed at ridding itself of management over the age of 50 in favor of younger management employees."

Hines spent 16 years with May Department Stores Co.’s Arlington, Va.-based Hecht Co. division, most recently as senior vice president and general merchandise manager, before joining Belk.? The suit asserts that he could have retired from May at 65 had he remained with the firm and notes that he uprooted his family to relocate to Raleigh, N.C., in order to take the position with Belk.

In the late Nineties, Belk, the largest privately held department store firm in the U.S., consolidated from about 100 family-owned operations into 13 regional divisions and finally into four regional units, including the northern division. However, it undertook what it termed a "merchandising and marketing consolidation," completed last August, which resulted in terminations that Belk hasn’t quantified publicly.

Last week, as the firm released yearend sales and earnings information, chief executive John Belk referred to the consolidation as "an important strategic move for Belk that will enable us to serve our customers better, improve efficiency, increase our capacity for expansion and produce better operating results over the long term." In the year ended Feb. 1, as reported, the firm’s net income swelled 32.5 percent to $84 million while sales rose 0.3 percent, to $2.24 billion, and same-store sales fell 3.2 percent.Officials at Belk didn’t return phone calls seeking comment Friday and have declined, since last November, to respond to requests for interviews about possible age discrimination actions stemming from its 2002 consolidation.

The court papers note that Hines had an "oral employment agreement" but make no mention of a written contract. Hines’ attorney, Douglas McFadden, of the law firm of McFadden and Shoreman in Washington, declined to discuss matters of evidence but indicated that he wasn’t aware of any response to the suit by Belk and hadn’t received a date for the start of a trial.

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