RECENT SUPREME COURT DECISION INTERPRETS ADEA TO COVER STATE AND LOCAL GOVERNMENTS OF ANY SIZE

On November 6, 2018, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Mount Lemmon Fire District v. Guido, 2018 WL 5794639 (2018), and held that state and local governments of any size are covered under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (“ADEA”), 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq.  Therefore, states and their political subdivisions are covered by the ADEA regardless of whether they have twenty employees.

In this case, two former employees of the Mount Lemmon Fire District, a political subdivision in Arizona, sued their employer for terminating their employment in violation of the ADEA. The former employees were the two oldest full-time firefighters at ages forty-six and fifty-four.  The Fire District maintained throughout the suit that it was too small to qualify as a covered employer under the ADEA.

The ADEA provides, “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. . . .” 29 U.S.C. § 630(b).

The Supreme Court’s 8-0 decision authored by Justice Ginsburg focused on the meaning of the words “also means” in the definition of “employer.” The Court determined that these words were “additive rather than clarifying.”  Therefore, the second sentence of the ADEA’s provision on employers addresses states and political subdivisions as a “discrete category that, beyond doubt, carries no numerical limitation.”  This category is distinguished from private employers, which have the requirement of employing twenty or more employees to be covered under the ADEA.

This broad reading of § 630(b) gives the ADEA a wider reach than Title VII, but the Supreme Court found that this difference was the result of the language chosen by Congress. The Court remarked that “[t]he better comparator” for the ADEA is the Fair Labor Standards Act, which covers states and political subdivisions of any size as employers.  Furthermore, the Supreme Court took note that the EEOC has interpreted the ADEA to cover all states and political subdivisions for the past thirty years.

This unanimous decision is significant for its clarification of when the ADEA applies to state and local governments. It is now evident that these types of employers are covered under the ADEA regardless of their size.  Nevertheless, these employers are well-advised to reference any relevant state statutes that prohibit age discrimination, as they may have lesser standards when compared to the ADEA.