On November 6, 2018, the United States Supreme Court unanimously held (8-0) that the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”) extends to all small state and local government employers, not only public entities with twenty or more employees.

The case arose from a lawsuit filed by two former fire fighter captains, who alleged that the Mount Lemmon Fire District (the “Fire District”) near Tucson, Arizona unlawfully terminated their employment because of their age. The Fire District moved to dismiss the claim, arguing that it did not qualify as an “employer” within the ADEA because it had less than twenty employees.

The Court explained that the statute, 29 U.S.C. § 630(b), defines “employer” as “a person engaged in an industry affecting commerce who has twenty or more employees,” and further states that “[t]he term also means (1) any agent of such a person, and (2) a State or political subdivision of a State….” The parties disputed whether the words ‘“also means’ add new categories to the definition of ‘employer,’” or if it “merely clarif[ies] that States and their political subdivisions are a type of ‘person’ included in § 630(b)’s first sentence.”

The Court interpreted “also means” and held that the statutory scheme “leave[s] scant room for doubt that state and local governments are ‘employer[s]’ covered by the ADEA regardless of their size.” Therefore, it affirmed the decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, “that § 630(b)’s two-sentence delineation, and the expression ‘also means’ at the start of the second sentence, combine to establish separate categories: persons engaged in an industry affecting commerce with 20 or more employees; and States or political subdivisions with no attendant numerosity limitation.”

Key Takeaway

As it is now clear that the ADEA applies to all sizes of governmental entities, small state and local government employers must ensure that their employment decisions are free from age-based bias. These governmental entities should consult with experienced employment counsel to ensure they are complying with federal law.