SCOTUS Rules that ADEA Applies to Small State Offices

On November 6, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) extends to small state and local government employers, rejecting an Arizona fire district’s contention that the statute should apply only to public entities with at least 20 employees.

In a unanimous 8-0 decision, the court upheld the Ninth Circuit’s decision to reopen a lawsuit by two firefighter captains who claim they were illegally terminated by the Mount Lemmon Fire District near Tucson, Arizona, because of their age. John Guido and Dennis Rankin were working as full-time firefighter captains and were the two oldest full-time employees at the district when they were fired. Guido and Rankin were ages 46 and 54, respectively, when they were let go in 2009.

Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA)

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 is the federal statute at hand in this case. The ADEA defines “employer” as “a person engaged in an industry affecting commerce who has twenty or more employees for each working day in each of twenty or more calendar weeks in the current or preceding calendar year … The term also means (1) any agent of such a person, and (2) a State or political subdivision of a State and any agency or instrumentality of a State or a political subdivision of a State, and any interstate agency, but such term does not include the United States.”

This definition is the result of a 1974 amendment; before then, the ADEA applied to private employers of 25 employees or more, and expressly excluded public employers. The act defines “person” as “one or more individuals, partnerships, associations, labor organizations, corporations, business trusts, legal representatives, or any organized groups of persons.”

Circuit Court Split 

ADEA

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has long maintained that the ADEA covers state and local employers of any size and thus found reasonable cause to believe the fire district had discriminated against Guido and Rankin. But the district court, following the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the 6th, 7th, 8th and 10th Circuits, held that the ADEA’s 20-employee threshold applies to state and local employers. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit created a circuit split last year by ruling that a political subdivision of a state need not have 20 or more employees to qualify as an employer subject to the ADEA.

During oral arguments on October 1, SCOTUS attempted to determine if the statutory language “also means” makes political subdivisions a wholly separate category of employer subject to the ADEA’s requirements, or whether it merely clarifies that state and local employers should be treated in the same fashion as private companies under the ADEA. The Court ruled 8-0 Tuesday that employers like the Mount Lemmon Fire District – state or local government entities with fewer than 20 workers – can be sued under the ADEA.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg delivered the Court’s opinion affirming the Ninth Circuit. Ginsburg wrote that the statute’s text leaves “scant room for doubt that state and local gov­ernments are ‘employer[s]’ covered by the ADEA regard­less of their size…§630(b)’s two-sentence delineation, and the expression ‘also means’ at the start of the second sentence, combine to establish separate categories: persons engaged in an industry affecting com­merce with 20 or more employees; and states or political subdivisions with no attendant numerosity limitation,” Ginsburg said.

Kingsley & Kingsley – Experienced California Employment Lawyers

It is important to remember that not all illegal age bias is blatant. Even something meant to be harmless, such as a question about future retirement plans or a comment about professional longevity, could be used against you. If you are a victim of age discrimination, the California employment lawyers at Kingsley & Kingsley can help. Should you have questions about discrimination or retaliation in the workplace, call and speak to an experienced California lawyer toll-free at (888) 500-8469 or click here to contact us via email.

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