Court Below: Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals
Facing budget shortfalls, the Fire District of Mount Lemmon in Arizona laid off its two oldest firefighters, John Guido (then 46) and Dennis Rankin (then 54). Guido and Rankin sued for age discrimination. They claimed the Fire District violated the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). The ADEA prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of age (ages 40 and over).
The ADEA did not always cover public employers. When it was first passed in 1967, only private sector employers had to obey. But after an amendment in 1974, the coverage provisions expanded. The text was amended to include state and local government employers. But, according to Mount Lemmon Fire District, the state/local employers had to have at least 20 employees to be bound.
That was the issue in this case: Does the ADEA cover all state and local government employers, or just those with 20 or more employees?
Supreme Court ruling
The Supreme Court ruled against the Fire District. In reading the definition of “employer” in the ADEA, all eight Justices agreed that all state and local employers were covered by the law, regardless of the number of employees. Kavanaugh did not participate because he had not joined the Court when the case was argued.
Supreme Court analysis
The text, as always, plays the most important role in statutory analysis. The relevant part of the ADEA was the definition of employer:
“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 . . . .”
The parties disputed whether “also means” supplied an additive function or a clarifying function. If “also means” adds additional categories, then the 20-employee limitation does not apply to the additional categories. If, on the other hand, it clarifies the text before it, then — as the Fire District argued — the 20-employee limitation applies.
The Supreme Court said “also means” adds categories, rejecting the Fire Department’s view. The two additional categories do not include the 20-employee limitation. Furthermore, the Court said, reviewing the history of the ADEA’s employer coverage provision, it’s clear that Congress intended to include all state and local government employees.
The employer definition of the ADEA was amended in 1974. In the very same amendments, Congress amended the coverage provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The FLSA definitely covers all state and local employers (regardless of size), and the ADEA was meant to cover them all also. In fact, many aspects of the ADEA were based on the provisions of the FLSA.
The Court rejected the Fire District’s attempt to use a different statute for comparison. Just three years before the ADEA was passed, the employment discrimination of the Civil Rights Act (Title VII) prohibited discrimination based on other protected classes (sex race, color, national origin and religion). Like the ADEA, it contained a numerosity requirement when it was passed, and both of them started out only applying in the private sector. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act was amended in 1972 to include state and local employers, and Congress applied the employer-size provision to the newly added state and local government coverage. The Fire District argued that Congress’ intent to use the employer-size limitation in Title VII meant that Congress intended to do the same for the ADEA two years later when it added state and local government employers.
No, the Court said. The text makes clear that Congress did something different with the ADEA. All state and local government employers are covered, regardless of size. Guido and Rankin can pursue their age discrimination claims against the Fire District.