Blogs

Posted on Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Firefighters Fight For Rights In Age Discrimination Suit

Mount Lemmon Fire District v. Guido,
___ U.S. ___, No. 17-587 (6 November 2018)
Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA)

Faced with a budget shortfall, Mount Lemmon Fire District, a political subdivision in Arizona, laid off its two oldest full-time firefighters. The two firefighters sued the Fire District, alleging that their termination violated the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), 29 U. S. C. §621 et seq. The Fire District moved to dismiss the lawsuit on the ground that the Fire District was too small to qualify as an “employer” within the ADEA’s compass. The Act’s controlling definitional provision, 29 U. S. C. §630(b), reads:

“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 question before the Court: Is the ADEA’s numerosity specification (20 or more employees), applicable to “a person engaged in an industry affecting commerce,” apply as well to state entities (including state political subdivisions)?

The Court held that §630(b)’s two-sentence definition of “employer,” using the expression “also means” at the start of the second sentence, 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. “[T]wenty or more employees” is confining language, but the confinement is tied to §630(b)’s first sentence, and does not limit the ADEA’s governance of the employment practices of States and political subdivisions thereof. Therefore, political subdivisions with less than 20 employees are subject to the ADEA.

The Court said that the ordinary meaning of “also means” is additive rather than clarifying. The phrase “also means” occurs dozens of times throughout the U.S. Code, typically carrying an additive meaning. (Slip op. at 5.) Furthermore, the text of §630(b) pairs States and their political subdivisions with agents, a discrete category that, beyond doubt, carries no numerical limitation.

The Court distinguished the ADEA’s §630(b) from the analogous provisions in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §2000e(a)-(b). Title VII defines “employer” as a “person” engaged in an industry affecting commerce and having 15 or more employees, and it defines “person” as meaning individuals, governments, government agencies, and political subdivisions. Title VII also defines “industry affecting commerce” to include any governmental industry, business or activity. Thus, in contrast to the ADEA, under Title VII a political subdivision with less than 15 employees is not subject to liability under Title VII.

This was a unanimous decision. Justice Ginsburg wrote the Court’s opinion.

John Polk is a Special Counsel at Berenzweig Leonard, LLP. John can be reached at JPolk@BerenzweigLaw.com.