The U.S. Supreme Court held yesterday that the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) applies to state and local government employers, regardless of their size. In doing so, the Court unanimously adopted the Ninth Circuit’s reading of the statute when four other Circuits held the opposing position.
The case involved two firefighters who brought ADEA claims against their fire department. The trial court granted summary judgment on the ground that the fire department did not meet the 20 employee threshold for coverage under the ADEA. The Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that the threshold did not apply to state and local governments.
The key statutory language disputed by the parties was the ADEA’s definition of “employer”:
“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 . . . .” 29 U. S. C. § 630(b).
The Court adopted a plain reading of the statute, holding that the phrase “also means” is an “additive rather than clarifying” phrase. The Court stated that “also” is a term of enhancement that essentially created another category of “employer”—i.e., state and local governments regardless of their size. The Court rejected the fire department’s argument that the definition’s first sentence sets the baseline definition and the second sentence simply clarifies that state and local governments are included so long as they have at least 20 employees.
While this decision does not apply to private employers, it is particularly notable for two reasons. First, the Justices adopted a plain reading of the statute and did so unanimously. Second, the case represents a rare situation in which the Supreme Court sided with the Ninth Circuit in an employment matter when all other Circuits deciding the issue were on the opposing side.