In Mount Lemmon Fire Dist. v. Guido et al., No. 17-587, 2018 U.S. LEXIS 6639 (Nov. 6, 2018), the Supreme Court of the United States held that the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) applies to state and local governmental entities employing fewer than 20 employees.  

The Mount Lemmon Fire District, a political subdivision of the State of Arizona, terminated the employment of two firefighters over the age of 40. The firefighters filed a lawsuit against the Fire District alleging age discrimination under the ADEA. In response, the Fire District argued that the lawsuit should be dismissed because it employed fewer than 20 employees and, therefore, the ADEA did not apply.

The ADEA makes it unlawful for an employer to “refuse to hire or to discharge any individual or otherwise discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s age.” 29 U.S.C. § 623(a)(1). The ADEA’s prohibitions apply to “individuals who are at least 40 years of age.” 29 U.S.C. § 631(a).

Under the ADEA, the term “employer” is defined as “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 ….” 29 U.S.C. § 630(b) (emphasis added).

Based on the foregoing language, federal courts have differed on whether the 20 employee threshold applies to “a State or political subdivision of a State” as referenced in the ADEA’s definition of “employer.” Courts have differed on this interpretation because the reference to 20 or more employees is only contained in the initial sentence of the definition of “employer” and is not repeated in the sentence containing the phrase “a State or political subdivision of a State.”

In Mount Lemmon, the Supreme Court settled the issue by ruling that the ADEA applies to all State and political subdivisions of a State regardless of size. The Court reasoned that because the “twenty or more employees” qualifier is contained only in the first sentence of the definition, it does not impose the same limitation on a State or political subdivision. The Court emphasized the use of the phrase “also means” before the definition’s reference to “a State or political subdivision of a State.”

Some states already have anti-discrimination laws that apply to state employers regardless of size. In such states, the affected employers likely already have protections in place against age discrimination claims. Where such state laws do not exist, however, state and local government employers should ensure their practices comply with the ADEA now that the Supreme Court of the United States has made clear the ADEA applies to them. Moreover, the Mount Lemmon decision will now give plaintiff’s lawyers a means to file age discrimination claims in federal court.