Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Public-Sector Age Discrimination Plaintiffs

The Supreme Court issued its first decision of the term today, and it was the age discrimination Mount Lemmon Fire District v. Guido case. I'll claim credit for predicting a win for the public-sector plaintiffs--minus the fact that I was wrong about saying it wouldn't be unanimous. So, the outcome wasn't a surprise, but the unanimous support for both a group of employees and the Ninth Circuit was. You can read the full opinion here. For lazy readers, here's the syllabus:

John Guido and Dennis Rankin filed suit, alleging that the Mount Lemmon Fire District, a political subdivision in Arizona, terminated their employment as firefighters in violation of the Age Discrimina- tion in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA). The Fire District responded that it was too small to qualify as an “employer” under the ADEA, which provides: “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).

Initially, both Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the ADEA applied solely to private sector employers. In 1974, Congress amended the ADEA to cover state and local governments. A previ- ous, 1972, amendment to Title VII added States and their subdivi- sions to the definition of “person[s],” specifying that those entities are engaged in an industry affecting commerce. The Title VII amend- ment thus subjected States and their subdivisions to liability only if they employ a threshold number of workers, currently 15. By con- trast, the 1974 ADEA amendment added state and local governments directly to the definition of “employer.” The same 1974 enactment al- so amended the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), on which many aspects of the ADEA are based, to reach all government employers regardless of their size. 29 U. S. C. §203(d), (x).

Held: The definitional provision’s two-sentence delineation, set out in §630(b), and the expression “also means” at the start of §630(b)’s 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.

The words “also means” in §630(b) add new categories of employers to the ADEA’s reach. First and foremost, the ordinary meaning of “also means” is additive rather than clarifying. See 859 F. 3d 1168, 1171 (case below) (quoting Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary 34). The words “also means” occur dozens of times throughout the U. S. Code, typically carrying an additive meaning. E.g., 12 U. S. C. §1715z–1(i)(4). Furthermore, the second sentence of the ADEA’s definitional provision, §630(b), pairs States and their political subdivi- sions with agents, a discrete category that carries no numerical limitation.

Reading the ADEA’s definitional provision, §630(b), as written to apply to States and political subdivisions regardless of size may give the ADEA a broader reach than Title VII, but this disparity is a consequence of the different language Congress chose to employ. The better comparator for the ADEA is the FLSA, which also ranks States and political subdivisions as employers regardless of the num- ber of employees they have. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has, for 30 years, interpreted the ADEA to cover political subdivisions regardless of size, and a majority of the States impose age discrimination proscriptions on political subdivisions with no numerical threshold. Pp. 4–6.


In short, if you're an employee plaintiff, it really helps to have a strong textual argument.

-Jeff Hirsch


Employment Discrimination, Labor and Employment News | Permalink


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