US Supreme Court Considering Fire Service Case

In my world it is a special day when a fire service case reaches the US Supreme Court. Yesterday, oral arguments were heard in Mount Lemmon Fire District v. Guido, an age discrimination case out of Arizona.

The facts as explained by Oyez:

  • In 2000, John Guido and Dennis Rankin were hired by the Mount Lemmon Fire District, a political subdivision of the State of Arizona. They were full-time firefighter captains, and at ages 46 and 54, respectively, were the two oldest full-time employees at the Fire District when they were terminated in 2009. Guido and Rankin filed age discrimination charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which found reasonable cause to believe that the Fire District had violated the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), 29 U.S.C. §§ 621-34. Guido and Rankin subsequently filed suit against the Fire District.
  • The Fire District sought summary judgment on the basis that it was not an “employer” within the meaning of the ADEA, and the district court agreed. A three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit reversed. Ruling counter to what other circuits have concluded, the appellate court stated that a political subdivision of a state does not need to have 20 or more employees, as private sector employers do, in order to be covered by the ADEA.
  • Question: Under the ADEA, does the same twenty-employee minimum that applies to private employers also apply to political subdivisions of a state, as the Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, and Tenth Circuits have held, or does the ADEA apply instead to all state political subdivisions of any size, as the Ninth Circuit held in this case?

While the issue in the case may be of minimal concern from a fire service perspective, it is important to the Supreme Court because the circuit courts of appeal are split over the issue of whether the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) applies to all public employers, or just those with 20 or more employers.

The key provision in the ADEA is 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.

The 6th, 7th, 8th and 10th Circuits have concluded that the above language is ambiguous. As a result, these circuits interpret the ADEA in a pro-employer manner as only applying to public employers with 20 or more employees.

On the other hand, the 9th Circuit ruled in the Mount Lemmon case that the language was not ambiguous, leading to the pro-employee conclusion that the ADEA applied to public employers like the Mount Lemmons Fire District regardless of the number of employees.

The audio recording of the oral arguments has not been made public, but attached is the transcript: 17-587_5h26

Here is the 9th Circuit decision: Guido v Mount Lemmon Fire.

A ruling is not expected until December at the earliest, and may not come until late June/early July when the Court takes its summer recess.

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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