U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court rules federal age-bias law applies to state and local governments of any size

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The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 applies to state and local governments, regardless of their size.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the 8-0 opinion, the first of the term. The case was argued on Oct. 1, before Brett M. Kavanaugh joined the court on Oct. 5, the National Law Journal reports. He did not participate in the opinion.

At issue in the case is whether a provision in the age-bias law restricting its application to employers with 20 or more employees applies only to private sector employers, or whether the employee threshold also applies to state and local governments. Ginsburg said the first interpretation is correct—private employers with fewer than 20 employees are exempted from the law’s reach, but public employers of all sizes must comply.

The ADEA originally applied to only private employers with a specified number of employees. A 1974 amendment extended the reach of the age-bias law to state and local governments by defining them as employers who are subject to liability.

The provision read: “The term ‘employer’ means a person engaged in an industry affecting commerce who has 20 or more employees. … The term also means (1) any agent of such a person, and (2) a state or political subdivision of a state.”

Ginsburg said the phrase “also means” adds a new category of employers to the ADEA’s reach: state and local governments of any size. ” ‘Twenty or more employees’ is confining language,” Ginsburg wrote, “but the confinement is tied to [the provision’s] first sentence.”

Ginsburg ruled in a suit by two laid-off firefighters against the Mount Lemmon Fire District, a political subdivision in Arizona. The employees were the district’s oldest full-time firefighters when they were laid off at ages 46 and 54.

Ginsburg has written the first opinion of the term for three years in a row, according to USA Today. The case is Mount Lemmon Fire District v. Guido.

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