Supreme Court: Federal Age Discrimination Law Applies to All State, Local Government Agencies

There are a number of laws designed to combat age discrimination in the workplace. The most prominent is the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), which prohibits certain types of employers from discriminating against workers–who are at least 40 years old–on the basis of age. More precisely, the ADEA applies to private businesses with at least 20 employees and any “State or political subdivision of a State and any agency or instrumentality of a State or a political subdivision of a State.”

The Meaning of “Also Means”

Because of how the ADEA is worded, there has been some confusion among federal courts as to whether a state, or a political subdivision of a state, must also meet the same 20-employee threshold as private businesses to qualify as a covered employer. On November 6, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court definitively resolved this dispute. In a unanimous opinion, the Court held all states and political subdivisions are subject to the ADEA regardless of the number of employees it has at any given time.

The case, Mountain Lemon Fire District v. Guido, originated in Arizona. A local fire district laid off two of its firefighters, who are the plaintiffs in this case. The plaintiffs were both over the age of 40, and they subsequently sued the fire district for age discrimination under the ADEA. The fire district moved to dismiss the lawsuit, alleging it was not covered by the law since it had fewer than 20 employees.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the Supreme Court, said the confusion here boiled down to two words–“also means.” The critical section of the ADEA, 29 U.S.C. § 630, starts with a sentence explaining the term “employer” for purposes of the law means a private business (engaged in interstate commerce) with at least 20 employees. The next sentence then says employer “also means…a State or political subdivision of a State…” So the question, as Ginsburg put it, was whether or not the use of “also means” established a “separate category” of employers.

The answer was yes. “First and foremost,” Ginsburg said, “the ordinary meaning of 'also means' is additive rather than clarifying.” In other words, when Congress amended the ADEA to include states and their political units, it was clearly creating a “discrete category” of employer that “beyond doubt, carries no numerical limitation.” While other employment discrimination laws, such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, do limit their scope to state and local government agencies with a minimum number of employees, that is simply a “consequence of the different language Congress chose to employ.”

Speak with a New York Age Discrimination Lawyer Today

The Court's ruling is good news for employees who have been affected by age discrimination at all levels of state and local government. If you have been denied an employment opportunity due to your age and need to speak with a qualified New York employment attorney, contact the Law Offices of Nisar Law Group, P.C., today.