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Supreme Court unanimously applies ADEA to small public employers

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) prohibits discrimination in any aspect of employment against people 40 and older. When two firefighters from a small Arizona district sued for alleged age discrimination, however, the fire district claimed that the law only applied to organizations with at least 20 employees. The firefighters appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, which has just ruled in their favor.

The ruling means that all local, state and federal agencies, no matter how small, are covered by the ADEA and are prohibited from engaging in age discrimination.

The question comes down to the ADEA's definition of what employers are covered by the law. It defined a covered employer as:

"a person engaged in an industry affecting commerce who has twenty or more employees for each working day in each of twenty or more calendar weeks in the current or preceding calendar year. ... The term also means (1) any agent of such a person, and (2) a State or political subdivision of a State and any agency or instrumentality of a State or a political subdivision of a State, and any interstate agency, but such term does not include the United States."

The fire district's argument turned in part on the phrase, "also means" within the statute. The fire district argued that the phrase implies that the two numbered descriptions are clarifications of the initial description.

Writing for the court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg applied the principles of statutory interpretation. She found that the phrase "also means" is used in a variety of statutes and has been interpreted by the Supreme Court before. Based on those indicators, the court ruled that, in the context of the ADEA, "also means" was meant to introduce new categories of covered employers.

Ginsburg also pointed out that reading the phrase as urged by the fire district would have the odd result of applying the 20-employee threshold to states and their political subdivisions but not to "any agent of such a person" even though they are in parallel grammatical positions.

The fire division also argued that holding small public employers liable for age discrimination would endanger their operations. Ginsburg pointed out that "no untoward service shrinkages have been documented" even though the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has long maintained that the ADEA applies to such employers.

The case resolves a circuit split. The Sixth, Seventh, Eighth and Tenth Circuits had held that the ADEA did not apply to public sector employers with less than 20 employees, while the Ninth Circuit applied the law to those employers.

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