U.S. Supreme Court Rules That ADEA Applies To All Public Employers

Volume: 17 | Issue: 22
November 9, 2018

On November 6, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision in Mount Lemmon Fire District v. Guido, ruling that the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) applies to all public employers, including those with fewer than 20 employees.

The Mount Lemmon Fire District in Arizona laid off two firefighters who sued their employer under the ADEA. The City’s Fire District argued that the firefighters’ age discrimination claims should be dismissed because it was too small to qualify as an “employer” under the ADEA. The ADEA defines employer as follows: one “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 . . . .” The Fire District argued that the size limitation in the first sentence of this definition applied to state or political subdivisions rendering public employers with less than 20 employees excluded from the ADEA’s coverage.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had rejected this argument, while other circuit courts have held that small public employers are not covered by the ADEA. The U.S. Supreme Court, in the Mount Lemmon Fire District case, agreed with the Ninth Circuit Court and held that the size limitation does not apply to public employers.

The Supreme Court relied upon the “two sentence delineation” of the ADEA’s definition of “employer,” as well as the expression “also means” at the start of the second sentence. These sentences, the Court held, “combine to establish separate categories: persons engaged in an industry affecting commerce with 20 or more employees [private employers]; and States or political subdivisions with no attendant numerosity limitation [public employers].” The Court explained: “[T]wenty or more employees” is confining language, but the confinement is tied to [the definition’s] first sentence, and does not limit the ADEA’s governance of the employment practices of States and political subdivisions thereof.”

The Court also traced the legislative history of the ADEA, pointing out that, like Title VII, it did not originally apply to public employers. When Title VII was amended to add public employers, its size limitation, that limited coverage to persons employing 15 or more employees, was applied to public employers. But when the ADEA was amended to add public employers, Congress used different language which it also applied to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). This language does not apply a size limitation to public employers.

As such, all public employers are covered by the FLSA and the ADEA, while only those with 15 or more employees are covered by statutes like Title VII and the Americans with Disabilities Act. If you have questions about this decision or about the scope of federal or state equal employment opportunity laws, please contact a KZA attorney.

KZA Employer Report articles are for general information only; they are not intended and should not be construed to be legal advice. Reading or replying to such articles does not establish an attorney-client relationship. In addition, because the subject matters and applicable laws discussed in Employer Report articles are often in a state of change and not always applicable to every type of business entity or organization, readers should consult with counsel before making decisions based on the same.

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