Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Any municipality can be sued for age discrimination under federal law

The Supreme Court has ruled that the all municipalities may be sued under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, even if they employ fewer than 20 people, the numerical threshold for private employers.

The case is Mount Lemmon Fire District v. Guido, decided on November 6. Three anti-discrimination laws largely govern equal employment litigation: Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967. We also got the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. The statutes are not co-terminus; they each have some minor distinctions, including how many employees an employer may have before someone can bring a discrimination lawsuit. You need 15 under Title VII and the ADA but 20 under the ADEA. Another distinction lies in whether that threshold applies across the board. It does  not.

Under Title VII, the 15-employee minimum applies to private and public defendants. The question in this case is whether the 20-employee minimum holds true under the ADEA. Under the ADEA,“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 . . . .” Justice Ginsburg employs some statutory construction here. The case turns on the phrase "also means." Parsing out the statute, the Court unanimously holds that the 20-employee rule does not apply to public employers, essentially holding municipalities to a higher standard of personnel management, as it is easier for workers to sue a town, village or county for age discrimination.

The statutory analysis seems clear, which explains the 8-0 decision. But management did tell the Court that the holding it would eventually reach would result in more litigation against municipalities. The Court rejected that argument:

The Fire District warns that applying the ADEA to small public entities risks curtailment of vital public services such as fire protection. Experience suggests otherwise. For 30 years, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has consistently interpreted the ADEA as we do today. And a majority of States forbid age discrimination by political subdivisions of any size; some 15 of these States subject private sector employers to age discrimination proscriptions only if they employ at least athreshold number of workers. No untoward service shrinkages have been documented.

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