The Supreme Court, in its first decision of the new term, ruled Tuesday that the federal ban on age discrimination applies broadly to state and local governments, even to a small fire department that has only a few employees.
The unanimous decision clears the way for two laid-off firefighters in Mount Lemmon, Ariz., to sue the fire department for age discrimination. They were the two oldest full-time firefighters, but the city’s lawyers argued the federal law did not cover them.
At issue was how to read the definition of an employer in the 1974 law. It defines an employer as someone who is engaged in commerce and has 20 or more employees. It also says an employer is a “state or a political subdivision of a state.”
Writing for the court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said those two provisions “combine to establish separate categories.” For private employers, small firms with fewer than 20 employees are not covered. However, all state and local governments are covered, she said, regardless of how small they are.
“Congress did not repeat the ‘twenty or more employees’ qualifier when referencing state and local government entities. This court is not at liberty to insert the absent qualifier,” she wrote in Mount Lemmon vs. Guido.
The ruling upheld a decision of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, but several others, including the 7th Circuit in Chicago and the 10th Circuit in Denver, had ruled earlier that the federal age bias law did not cover employees in small local government agencies.
Tuesday’s decision dealt only with who was covered by the age bias law. In the past, the court has made it difficult for older employees to prove they were victims of age bias if the employer could cite other reasons for layoffs.
Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh took no part in the decision because the case was heard in October, a week before he took his seat.