UNITED STATES SUPREME COURT EXPANDS FEDERAL AGE DISCIMINATION LAWS TO INCLUDE EVEN THE SMALLEST POLITICAL SUBDIVISIONS 14:21, November 26, 2018

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UNITED STATES SUPREME COURT EXPANDS FEDERAL AGE DISCIMINATION LAWS TO INCLUDE EVEN THE SMALLEST POLITICAL SUBDIVISIONS

UNITED STATES SUPREME COURT EXPANDS FEDERAL AGE DISCIMINATION LAWS TO INCLUDE EVEN THE SMALLEST POLITICAL SUBDIVISIONS

On November 6, 2018, the Supreme Court of the United States issued its first decision of the term: Mount Lemon Fire District v. Guido, No. 17-587, 586 U. S. ____ (2018).   Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the opinion, in which all other Justices joined (barring Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who did not participate in the matter).  The Court held that the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, 11 U.S.C. §§ 621, et seq. (the “ADEA”) applies to all public employers, regardless of their size.  In so ruling, the Court resolved a lopsided circuit split between the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit on one hand, and all other Circuits addressing the issue, including the Tenth Circuit, on the other.  Notably, the Supreme Court unanimously sided with both the employee plaintiffs and the Ninth Circuit.

The Mount Lemon Fire District is a political subdivision in Arizona.  As the result of a budget shortfall, the District laid off its two oldest full-time firefighters.  The firefighters sued the District on grounds that there layoffs constituted discrimination against them based on their age, in violation of the ADEA.  The Fire District moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing that it was too small to fall within the statutory definition of “employer.”  The outcome hinged on the Court’s interpretation of that definition, which 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 and any agency or instrumentality of a State or a political subdivision of a State, and any interstate agency, but such term does not include the United States, or a corporation wholly owned by the Government of the United States.

The Fire District argued that it was not an “employer” subject to the ADEA because it was a “person engaged in an industry affecting commerce,” but did not satisfy the numerical limitation contained in the first sentence (i.e., it did not have twenty or more employees).  In the District’s view, the second sentence merely clarifies that States and their political subdivisions are types of “persons” that may be “employers” under the first sentence. The Supreme Court disagreed, reasoning that the ordinary meaning of “also means” in the second sentence is additive rather than clarifying.  As such, the second sentence creates additional categories of “employers” under the ADEA that are not subject to the numerical limitation in the first sentence.  A political subdivision is one such category

Impact:

The Fire District made the policy argument that the application of the ADEA to small public employers “risks curtailment of vital public services such as fire protection.”  The Court rejected it.  It explained that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had long interpreted the definition in the same way as the Court, and that a majority of states prohibit age discrimination by political subdivisions regardless of size.  The Court observed that, despite such similar interpretations in these contexts, “[n]o untoward service shrinkages have been documented.”

The Roaring Fork Valley is home to a number of small political subdivisions, such as water and fire districts.  Before Mount Lemon Fire District, these employers were not subject to liability under the ADEA, nor did their employees have any cause of action thereunder, pursuant to prior Tenth Circuit authority.  Now that the Supreme Court has overruled that authority, local political subdivisions face exposure to federal liability for age discrimination; and employees may bring ADEA claims against even the smallest of political subdivisions.

For more information concerning special district matters, please contact David H. McConaughy, Esq. in our Glenwood Springs office at (970) 925-1936, 901 Grand Ave., Suite 201, Glenwood Springs, Colorado 81601, email: .  For more information concerning all types of employment-related matters, please contact Bailey A. Calhoun, Esq. in our Aspen office at (970) 925-1936, 625 East Hyman Ave., Suite 201, Aspen Colorado 81611, email: .