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Supreme Court Rules That Age Discrimination in Employment Act Applies to All State and Local Government Employers

November 12, 2018
Caroline J. Berdzik

On October 1, 2018, the Supreme Court heard arguments on a question concerning the application of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) to state and local governments. The case, Mount Lemmon Fire District v. Guido, et al., No. 17-587, involved the Mount Lemmon Fire District in Arizona, a subdivision of the State of Arizona, in which two firefighters argued that the ADEA applied to the Fire District. In response, the Fire District stated it had too few employees to qualify as an employer under the ADEA.

The ADEA defines a covered employer as a person or entity with “twenty or more employees,” and further states that the term employer “also means” a “state or political subdivision of a state.”

This statutory language has resulted in conflicting rulings, with some U.S. Courts of Appeals holding that the 20-employee minimum applies to state and local governments, effectively exempting smaller municipal entities from coverage under the ADEA. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which issued the opinion on appeal before the Supreme Court, held that the ADEA applies to all municipal subdivisions of a state, regardless of size.

On November 6, 2018, the Supreme Court issued its first ruling of the new term, unanimously finding that the ADEA applies to all state and municipal employers. The court found that the 20-employee threshold in the ADEA only applies to private employers, and that state governments and their subdivisions do not require a minimum number of employees.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the unanimous court, observed, “[f]irst and foremost, the ordinary meaning of ‘also means’ is additive rather than clarifying.” Given this interpretation, the court affirmed the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and held that all political subdivisions of a state, no matter the number of employees, are subject to the ADEA.

As a result of this decision, local and other political subdivisions of a state will need to evaluate their employment practices and policies — including those involving compensation, discipline, layoff, and more — to ensure that those practices are compliant with the ADEA when effecting employment-related determinations.

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