Supreme Court Rules that Age Discrimination Law Applies to All State and Local Agencies

In a unanimous decision handed down yesterday, the US Supreme Court ruled that the Age Discrimination in Employment Act applies to fire departments with fewer than 20 employees. The case was brought by two fire captains, John Guido, 46, and Dennis Rankin, 54 who worked for the Mount Lemmon Fire District in Arizona. Both were laid off in 2009 due to financial problems in the district. They were the oldest firefighters in the department and both filed suit claiming that they were terminated despite their seniority due to their age.

The fire district sought to have the case dismissed by arguing that the ADEA did not apply to government entities with fewer than 20 employees. At issue is the following ADEA language from  29 U.S.C. § 630(b) which states as follows:

  • The term “employer” means a person engaged in an industry affecting commerce who has twenty or more employees for each working day in each of twenty or more calendar weeks in the current or preceding calendar year . . . .
  • 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.

According to Mount Lemmon, the 20 or more employee in the first paragraph applies to those entities in the second paragraph. The US District Court for the District of Arizona agreed and granted the fire district’s motion for summary judgment. The 9th Circuit reversed prompting the fire district to appeal. The Supreme Court did something it tends not to do: it upheld a 9th Circuit decision.

  • The Fire District warns that applying the ADEA to small public entities risks curtailment of vital public services such as fire protection.
  • Experience suggests otherwise.
  • For 30 years, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has consistently interpreted the ADEA as we do today.
  • And a majority of States forbid age discrimination by political subdivisions of any size; some 15 of these States subject private sector employers to age discrimination proscriptions only if they employ at least a threshold number of workers.
  • No untoward service shrinkages have been documented.
  • In short, the text of the ADEA’s definitional provision, also its kinship to the FLSA and differences from Title VII, leave scant room for doubt that state and local governments are “employer[s]” covered by the ADEA regardless of their size.

Here is a copy of the ruling: Mount Lemmon Fire District v Guido et al

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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