Federal Age-Discrimination Law Applies To All Public Employers, Regardless of Size


On November 6, 2018, the Supreme Court of the United States unanimously ruled that the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) applies to all states and political subdivisions — regardless of their size. In its ruling of Mount Lemmon Fire District v. Guido, the Court reasoned that a 1974 amendment to the ADEA extended its reach to public-sector employers by adding state and local governments to the definition of “employer.” However, this extension to public-sector employers did not include the size requirement that applies to other covered employers under the ADEA — which is 20 or more employees.

The ADEA states that “employers” may not discriminate against persons on the basis of age. The ADEA originally applied only to private employers, but in 1974, Congress amended the definition of “employer” to read as follows:

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 central issue in Mount Lemmon Fire District v. Guido was whether the phrase “also means” in the definition clause added new categories of employers or merely clarified the employers identified in the first sentence of the clause. The Court agreed to hear this case due to a circuit conflict on this issue.

The Court held that the definition of employer establishes “separate categories: persons engaged in an industry affecting commerce with 20 or more employees; and states or political subdivisions with no attendant numerosity limitation.” This decision resolves the issue of whether small public-sector employers are required to comply with the ADEA.

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