Justices Find Age-Bias Law Covers Small State Employers

(CN) – In the first decision of its new term, the Supreme Court agreed Tuesday with two Arizona firefighters who argued that a federal age-discrimination law applies to state and local government entities with less than 20 employees.

In this Oct. 4, 2018 photo, the U.S. Supreme Court is seen at sunset in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

John Guido and Dennis Rankin alleged violations of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, or ADEA, in a 2013 federal lawsuit against their former employer, the Mount Lemmon Fire District. They claim they were fired at ages 46 and 54, respectively.

They were working as full-time firefighter captains and were the two oldest full-time employees at the district when they were let go.

The trial court ruled for the fire department, finding that it was not an employer under the ADEA.

The statute defines an employer as “a person engaged in an industry affecting commerce” with 20 or more workers. It later says employer “also means” any “agent of such person” and “a state or political subdivision of a state.”

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. The 10th, Eighth, Seventh and Sixth Circuits have all held otherwise.

At oral arguments last month, the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court grappled with whether 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 high 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 7-page opinion affirming the Ninth Circuit.

She wrote that 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.

The court’s newest member, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, did not participate in the case’s hearing or decision. He had not yet been confirmed when the justices heard arguments on Oct. 1.

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