SCOTUS decision may lead to more age discrimination lawsuits

Posted by Charles Middleton on 12/28/2018

Q: "Mount Lemmon Fire District v. Guido" was the U.S. Supreme Court's first opinion of the 2018 term. What did the court determine in this case?

A: The court held that the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), which prohibits age discrimination in employment against employees and applicants age 40 and older, applies to states and all political subdivisions of states, regardless of the size of the political subdivision.

Q: What is significant about this ruling?

A: This ruling expanded coverage of the ADEA and settled a split among the circuit courts of appeal on the ADEA's coverage of political subdivisions. The ADEA defines “employer” as a person who has “20 or more employees” in one sentence and as “a State or political subdivision of a State” in another sentence. The question in this case was whether the 20 or more employee requirement for coverage of the ADEA applied to political subdivisions of states. In the underlying case, the Arizona fire district that laid off the two firefighters for budgetary reasons argued that it was not covered by the ADEA because the fire district employed fewer than 20 employees. The Ninth Circuit rejected this argument, ruling that the ADEA applied to all political subdivisions. The Ninth Circuit's decision was exactly the opposite of rulings in several other circuit courts of appeal, including the Tenth Circuit, which has jurisdiction over Oklahoma.

Q: Why did the U.S. Supreme Court rule the ADEA applied to all political subdivisions, and not only to larger political subdivisions with 20 or more employees?

A: The court's decision turned on the words “also means.” The reference to political subdivisions was in a separate sentence than the 20-employee threshold. The separate sentence began with “The term also means” and listed two additional meanings for the word “employer” including “a state or political subdivision of a state.” The decision stated that the words “also means” were “additive rather than clarifying.” Thus, the words added new categories of employers separate from the category of private employers with 20 or more employees. The court also reasoned that the ADEA is more like the Fair Labor Standards Act, which covers all political subdivisions regardless of size. The court rejected the argument that the ADEA should be construed to match Title VII, another anti-discrimination employment law, which has a definition of “employer” limited to private and public employers with 15 or more employees.

Q: What impact will this decision have on employers?

A: From a broad perspective, it is significant that the decision was unanimous, 8-0. Justice Kavanaugh did not participate. The court interpreted this employment law in a more expansive way that covered more employers, rather than limiting its scope. The decision is likely to lead to more age discrimination cases being filed against smaller political subdivisions of states. In Oklahoma, this means that smaller cities could face more age discrimination cases.

PAULA BURKES, BUSINESS WRITER

Published The Oklahoman, December 28, 2018