Staffing Management

Public Sector Employers and Age Discrimination

By Daniel Saeedi, Rachel L. Schaller

Jan. 29, 2019

When Mount Lemmon (Arizona) Fire District faced a budget crisis, it laid off its two oldest (and highest paid) full-time firefighters.

They sued under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. The district argued that it did not violate any laws because it is too small to be considered an “employer” under the ADEA. Section 630(b) of the ADEA defines the term “employer” to mean any individual or company who has 20 or more employees. It states the term employer “also means a State or political subdivision of a State.”

The district argued that the two sentences should be read together to excuse any state or local government employer with fewer than 20 employees from complying with the ADEA. The district urged the court to adopt this interpretation because it is consistent with court decisions applying the minimum employee requirement to public employers under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The court disagreed with each of the district’s arguments. It held that by using the terms “also means,” Congress intended to add a second definition of the term “employer,” not clarify the prior definition. The court also noted that the ADEA is sometimes broader than Title VII due to the different language used in each statute. Mount Lemmon Fire Dist. v. John Guido, No. 17-587 (Nov. 6, 2018).

IMPACT: Public sector employers are subject to the ADEA and prohibited from discriminating against employees over age 40 based on age.

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