Supreme Court Says Federal Age-Bias Law Applies to Local Governments of Any Size

By Mark Walsh — November 06, 2018 3 min read
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In a decision that could affect the nation’s very smallest school districts, the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled that the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 applies to all political subdivisions, no matter how many employees they have.

The 8-0 decision rejects an argument that the ADEA’s provision applying the law to private employers with 20 or more workers should also be read to apply to public employers.

Writing for the court in Mount Lemmon Fire District v. Guido (Case No. 17-587), Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the ADEA establishes “separate categories: persons engaged in an industry affecting commerce with 20 or more employees; and states or political subdivisions with no attendant numerosity limitation.”

Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, who had not yet been confirmed when the court heard arguments on Oct. 1, took no part in the case.

Most school districts tend to be quite large employers in their communities. But some regular districts with fewer than 20 employees likely exist, as do certain administrative or special-purpose school districts that may have light employment rosters.

It is now clear that any such district is subject to the ADEA, which prohibits discrimination against employees age 40 or above in hiring and other employment decisions.

The case before the high court involved the Mount Lemmon Fire District in Arizona, an 11-employee agency that in 2009 laid off its two oldest firefighters, then age 56 and 46, in a budget crisis. The employees sued under the ADEA, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, sided with them that the language of the statute should be read to group public employers apart from the definition of private ones, for whom the 20-employee threshold applies.

Because different federal courts of appeals have interpreted the language differently, the Supreme Court took up the fire district’s appeal.

Ginsburg noted that public employers were initially excluded from coverage of both the ADEA and the earlier, broader anti-discrimination law, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.

Congress extended Title VII to public employers in 1972, and it provided the same threshold enjoyed by private employers under that law: Only those with at least 15 employees are covered, she noted.

In 1974, Congress amended the ADEA to cover state and local governments, but did so by adding them as a separate category of “employer” in the law, rather than adding them to the further language defining employer as a “person” engaged in commerce with 20 or more employees. (Though employers read the statutory language differently, leading to the dispute the court decided on Tuesday.)

In the same 1974 enactment, Ginsburg noted, Congress extended the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 to all government employers, regardless of size.

In a seven-page opinion that is heavy on interpretation of the language of the various statutes, Ginsburg said the fair reading of the 1974 amendment to the ADEA was to treat public employers as a separate category of employer not subject to the 20-employee threshold.

“The Fire District presses the argument that the ADEA should be interpreted in line with Title VII, which ... applies to state and local governments only if they meet a numerosity specification,” Ginsburg said. “True, reading the ADEA as written to apply to states and political subdivisions regardless of size gives the ADEA, in this regard, a broader reach than Title VII. But this disparity is a consequence of the different language Congress chose to employ.”

Ginsburg dismissed the fire district’s argument that exposing small local government agencies to liability under the age-discrimination law would risk curtailment of vital public services.

“Experience suggests otherwise,” she said. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has interpreted the ADEA to apply to small agencies for some 30 years, she said, and a majority of the states forbid age discrimination by political subdivisions of any size.

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A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.