The United States Supreme Court ruled that federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (“ADEA”) prohibits age discrimination against all state and local government employees, no matter the size of their employer.FN1 The ADEA expressly applies only to private employers with 20 or more employees, but is silent as to whether it applies to all public employers, regardless of size. The unanimous decision in Mount Lemmon Fire District v. Guido settles a split among federal appellate courts as to whether the ADEA applies only to public employers with 20 or more employees.FN2
The Supreme Court’s ruling is significant for many first responders, law enforcement officers, and other public-sector employees.FN3 All public employers should be mindful that workers age 40 or older may bring age discrimination, harassment, and retaliation claims against them.
The decision underscores the importance for employers to take steps to ensure consistent treatment of employees, and to make employment decisions only based on legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons. Employers may minimize their exposure to age discrimination claims by thoroughly and consistently documenting employee performance and behavior concerns, carefully investigating complaints of mistreatment, and training managers to treat employees consistently and to immediately report complaints of mistreatment.
FN1: Mount Lemmon Fire Dist. v. Guido, No. 17-587, 2018 WL 5794639, at *4-5 (U.S. Nov. 6, 2018) (“…state and local governments are “employer[s]” covered by the ADEA regardless of their size”); https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/18pdf/17-587_n7ip.pdf. In reaching this decision, the Supreme Court reasoned that the plain language of the ADEA defines an “employer” to mean (1) a private entity affecting commerce with twenty or more persons, and separately (2) a state or political subdivision of the state, regardless of size.
FN2: In contrast, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin) expressly applies only to private and public employers with 15 or more employees. See Mount Lemmon Fire Dist., 2018 WL 5794639, at *4.
FN3: See Patrick Dorrian, Firefighters Score Supreme Court Win for Older Public Workers (2), Bloomberg Law News, (November 6, 2018), https://news.bloomberglaw.com/daily-labor-report/firefighters-score-supreme-court-win-for-older-public-workers-2.