Supreme Court Holds Age Discrimination in Employment Act Applies To All State And Local Governments

In an 8-0 decision issued this morning, the Supreme Court held in Mount Lemmon Fire District v. Guido et al., No. 17-587 (2018) that the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”) applies to all state and local governments, regardless of  how many employees they have.

In 2009, faced with a budget crisis, the Mount Lemmon Fire District (“District”), a political subdivision of the state of Arizona, laid off its two oldest firefighters, aged 46 and 54. The firefighters sued the District, alleging their terminations violated the ADEA.  The District sought to dismiss the suit on the grounds it did not meet the definition of “employer” pursuant to the ADEA.  The ADEA defines an “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: Provided, That prior to June 30, 1968, employers having fewer than fifty employees shall not be considered employers. 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, or a corporation wholly owned by the Government of the United States.

The District employed less than 20 individuals, and therefore argued it was not an “employer” subject to the ADEA. The firefighters took the position, however, that the latter portion of the definition specifically considered states and their subdivisions to be employers without regard to their number of employees.  Accordingly, the question before the Court was whether the ADEA’s numerosity specification (20 or more employees), applied to a State or political subdivision of a State.

Specifically, the court addressed the issue of whether “also means” adds new categories to the definition of employer, or merely clarifies that states and their political subdivisions are subject to the first sentence of the definition. Federal courts have been consistently divided on this question; however, here the Court concluded that the phrase “also means” adds new categories of employers within the ADEA’s reach.  In so deciding, the Court stated that “the ordinary meaning of ‘also means’ is additive rather than clarifying.”

The Court also addressed the District’s argument that the ADEA should be interpreted in line with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”) which only applies to states and political subdivisions that meet the numerosity specification. While the Court acknowledged that its decision would give the ADEA a broader reach than Title VII, it characterized the disparity as a “consequence of the different language Congress chose to employ” and pointed out that the ADEA is more similar to the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) which also ranks states and political subdivisions as employers regardless of their number of employees.

As a result, all state and political subdivisions (such as local governments) are subject to the requirements of the ADEA without regard to how many individuals they employ.

If you have any questions regarding the content of this update, or any other questions regarding labor or employment law generally, please contact any of our attorneys below.

This update is provided for informational purposes only and should not be considered legal advice.