The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) is a federal law that protects the rights of people over the age of 40 from being fired or passed over for promotion due to their age. The Supreme Court reviewed a case recently involving the ADEA and decided – unanimously – that the law does apply to state and local government agencies regardless of the number of employees within that agency.
Mount Lemmon Fire District v. Guido
John Guido and Dennis Rankin were hired by the Mount Lemmon Fire District in Arizona in 2000. In 2009, however, when Guido was 46 and Rankin was 54 and they had both risen to the rank of Captain, they were terminated. They both filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleging they were the victims of age discrimination, and the EEOC agreed. Thus, Rankin and Guido filed a lawsuit against Mount Lemmon Fire District.
Mount Lemmon argued that the ADEA did not apply to them because they did not employ more than 20 people. The District Court agreed with their argument and granted the District summary judgment. Rankin and Guido then appealed that decision, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the 20-employee minimum does not apply to state or local government agencies but only to private sector employers.
Mount Lemmon Fire District then asked the Supreme Court of the United States to review the decision of the Ninth Circuit. Circuit courts throughout the United States had disagreed on this issue before, so the Supreme Court agreed to review it in order to clear up those differing opinions.
On November 6, the Supreme Court issued its unanimous ruling, holding that the ADEA applies to state and local government agencies whether or not they employ fewer than 20 employees. The decision really came down to a reading of the ADEA itself. Section 630(b) of the ADEA reads:
(b) The term “employer” means a person engaged in an industry affecting commerce who has twenty or more employees… 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…
The Supreme Court noted that the definition above clearly states that the term employer “also means… any agency of a State” (emphasis added). This meant, according to all eight justices, that the statute applied to two separate categories of employers: private-sector employers with more than 20 employees or state agencies. Thus, state agencies must comply with the ADEA regardless of the number of people they employ.
One more thing to note that is that only eight justices were included in this ruling as Justice Brett Kavanaugh took no part in the ruling because he was not sworn in until four days after arguments began.
Age discrimination claims are becoming more common as the working population ages. If you have questions about a potential discrimination claim, you should contact an employment attorney to discuss the facts of your case.