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SCOTUS: ADEA applies to all sizes of public sector employers

A unanimous, eight-member Supreme Court has just ruled that the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) applies to public sector employers regardless of their size. The law prohibits employment discrimination against those 40 and older. The ruling will allow two firefighters to pursue age discrimination claims against their small Arizona fire district.

It was a question of statutory interpretation. When considering such a matter, courts look to the natural reading and grammatical structure of the statute, along with congressional intent and previous court rulings on similar questions. Here, the case turned on how the ADEA defines which employers are to be covered by the law.

The ADEA uses the following language to define covered employers, which are those organizations required to comply with the law:

"a person engaged in an industry affecting commerce who has twenty or more employees for each working day in each of twenty or more calendar weeks in the current or preceding calendar year. ... The term also means (1) any agent of such a person, and (2) a State or political subdivision of a State and any agency or instrumentality of a State or a political subdivision of a State, and any interstate agency, but such term does not include the United States."

The language and structure of the definition is confusing. It seems unclear whether the phrase "the term also means" was meant to introduce a clarification of the previous definition or to introduce two new types of covered employers.

The firefighters argued that the 20-employee minimum was only meant to apply to private sector employers. The phrase "also means," in other words, added two new categories of employer to the definition. The fire district argued the opposite; that the phrase implies a carryover of the 20-employee threshold to all covered employers.

Writing for the court (without Justice Kavanaugh), said that this grammatical structure had been used in other statutes and Supreme Court cases, and that those pointed toward the firefighters' interpretation. Moreover, the fire district's interpretation would lead to a confusing result -- the 20-employee threshold would be applied to the first and third types of employer but not the second, "any agent of such a person."

The fire district also argued that holding tiny public employers potentially liable for age discrimination would be bad public policy because it could endanger their operations. Ginsburg responded that, despite the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's longstanding support of the firefighters' position, "no untoward service shrinkages have been documented."

This ruling, which resolved a split between the federal appellate circuits, will allow the two firefighters to move forward with their age discrimination case against the fire district.

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