Supreme Court Unanimously Expands Reach of Federal Age Discrimination Law


In a November 6, 2018 decision, in which new Justice Brett Kavanaugh did not participate (the case was argued on October 1, the term’s first day, and he was not sworn into office until October 5th), the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision expanding the reach of the federal law banning age discrimination in the workplace.  Specifically, the Court ruled state and local political subdivisions regardless of their size must comply with the Age Discrimination in Employment Act or ADEA.

The opinion in Mount Lemmon Fire District v. Guido was written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  Mount Lemmon (an Arizona political subdivision) was sued after terminating two of its oldest full-time firefighters, John Guido (then 46) and Dennis Rankin (then 54).  Guido and Rankin alleged illegal age discrimination under the ADEA.

Mount Lemmon’s defense was that the numerical requirement of 20-employees which applies to private employers under the ADEA also applies to state political subdivisions such that because the fire district had fewer than 20 employees, the provisions of the ADEA did not apply.

In the opinion, Justice Ginsburg analyzed the definition section of the ADEA, as well as the history of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the ADEA.  She noted the ADEA creates two separate categories, (1) persons engaged in industry affecting commerce with 20 or more employees and (2) states or political subdivisions with no specified number of employees.  According to Justice Ginsburg, “[ ] reading the ADEA as written to apply to States and political subdivisions regardless of size gives the ADEA, in this regard, a broader reach than Title VII.  But this disparity is a consequence of the different language Congress chose to employ.”  Justice Ginsburg further added, the better comparison is to the Fair Labor Standards Act, “on which many aspects of the ADEA are based” and which also “ranks States and political subdivisions as employers regardless of the number of employees they have.”

Justice Ginsburg rejected the fire district’s warning that applying the ADEA to small public entities would limit vital public services, such as fire protection.  She noted that “[f]or 30 years the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has consistently interpreted the ADEA as [the Supreme Court does today]” and that most states prohibit age discrimination by political subdivisions of any size.

In holding state and local governments are employers covered by the ADEA regardless of their size, the Supreme Court resolved a split in opinion between the Ninth Circuit and the Sixth, Seventh, Eighth and Tenth Circuits.  The decision upheld a June 2017 ruling of the Ninth Circuit.

According to a 2012 census, there are more than 38,000 special districts like Mount Lemmon scattered throughout the country.  The decision in this case could have an impact on those districts as well as the likely tens of thousands state and local government workers nationwide.