By unanimous decision, the Supreme Court has clarified that the Age Discrimination in Employment Act applies to all public sector employers.
The case centered on two Arizona firefighters who believe they were terminated because of their age. Their fire district claimed that the wording of the ADEA excluded smaller public agencies with less than 20 personnel. SCOTUS firmly rejected that interpretation.
Age Discrimination law is not limited to large agencies
At question was the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, which protects employees age 40 and over from discrimination in hiring, the workplace and termination. The case (John Guido; Dennis Rankin v. Mount Lemmon Fire District) was brought by two firefighters. When they were fired in 2009, they were the oldest full-timers (age 46 and 54) in their district.
They filed age discrimination charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC found reasonable cause that the fire district had violated the ADEA, and they filed suit in 2013.
A district court granted summary judgment to the fire district, based on an interpretation of the term “employer” in the ADEA. The two firefighters appealed to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which reversed the lower court. The fire district appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court unanimously upheld the Ninth Circuit, settling any ambiguity in the law. The crux of the case was the language of the ADEA. The act exempts private employers with fewer than 20 employees. But the ADEA goes on to say “The term (employers) also means … a State or political subdivision of a State.”
The Mount Lemmon Fire district asserted that the 20-employee limit applied to public employers. The Supreme Court disagreed, ruling that the ADEA applies to all public agencies regardless of size. This is consistent with how the EEOC and courts have interpreted the discrimination provisions of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
As a result of the SCOTUS ruling, Mr. Guido and Mr. Rankin can press their age discrimination lawsuits against the fire district. It should serve as notice to any public agency that they cannot use the size of their workforce as an excuse for laying off or discriminating against older employees.
ADEA, ADA and Title VII apply to federal employees too
The ADEA was originally written to protect private sector workers from ageism. It was later was amended to specifically apply to public employees, including federal employees. This is in line with the Americans with Disabilities Act and other federal discrimination statutes that specifically cover federal employees or to which the Supreme Court has extended that interpretation.
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