Mount Lemmon Fire District v. John Guido, et al. (2019)
In Mount Lemmon Fire District v. John Guido, et al. (2019), the Supreme Court declared that the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) applies to state political subdivisions that have fewer than 20 employees.
The Mount Lemmon Fire District, a political subdivision of Arizona, fired its two oldest firefighters in an effort to cut costs. The two firefighters sued, claiming that the terminations violated the ADEA. The Fire District countered that the district was too small to fit within the definition of an “employer” under the ADEA.
The ADEA’s pertinent section 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.”
This issue required the Court to decide whether “twenty or more employees” applied to “a person engaged in an industry affecting commerce” as well to state entities (such as political subdivisions). To resolve this question, the Court examined whether “also means” 1) adds new categories to the definition of “employer,” or 2) merely clarifies that states and their political subdivisions are a type of “person” included in the definition’s first sentence.
The Court pointed out that if “also means” adds new categories to the definition of employer, then state and local governments are covered by the ADEA regardless of whether they have as many as 20 employees. If, on the other hand, “also means” clarifies that states and their subdivisions are a type of “person” included in the first sentence, then employees are covered only if the employer has at least 20 employees. The Court noted that lower courts had divided over this question.
The Court began by stating that the ordinary meaning of “also means” is additive rather than clarifying. That is, it means “in addition to.” The Court next stated that “also means” appears many times throughout federal statutes, where it typically carries an additive meaning. The Court also considered the Fire District’s prediction that a broader interpretation of the ADEA would lead to curtailment of vital public services. The Court rejected that contention on grounds that experience suggested otherwise: “For 30 years, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has consistently interpreted the ADEA as we do today. And a majority of States forbid age discrimination by political subdivisions of any size . . . . No untoward service shrinkages have been documented.” For these reasons, the Court concluded that there was “scant room for doubt” that state governments and their subdivisions are “employers” covered by the ADEA regardless of their size.
Lance A. Cooper
Last updated: August 2019