SCOTUS Rejects Sixth Circuit’s Interpretation of Age Discrimination in Employment Act

The Age Dibuilding in city against skyscrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), 29 U.S.C. Section 621, et seq., prohibits discrimination on the basis of age by private companies and states and their political subdivisions. Originally, the law was passed as an amendment to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination on several other bases, including race, religion, and gender. As most practitioners know, Title VII restricts its reach to employers which have a minimum number of employees. Though initially the ADEA followed this restriction, amendments in 1974 changed 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 . . . .”

U. S. C. §630(b).

In the years that followed, Circuit Courts disagreed about the meaning of this language. In 1990, the Sixth Circuit in EEOC v. Monclava Township, held that the ADEA only applied to state and local governments with more than 20 employees. Yet, other Circuits, including the 9th, held that the ADEA’s mandates applied to state and local governments regardless of size.

SCOTUS accepted cert in Mount Lemmon Fire District v. Guido, et al. to resolve this conflict. In a unanimous decision authored by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Court sided with the 9th and other Circuits and against the 6th. Using traditional tools of statutory construction, the Court concluded that the ADEA plainly was intended to apply to state and local governments of any size. The Court noted that the amended definition of “employer” set state and local governments apart from private employers. While this means that the reach of the ADEA is broader than the reach of Title VII, the Court explained, the two statutes have different wording for the definition of “employer.”

What impact does this have on school districts? For most, it may not change much. Even relatively small school districts tend to employ more than 20 people and, as SCOTUS noted in Mount Lemmon, many states had already prohibited age discrimination by governments regardless of size. As such, even many small school districts were already subject to age discrimination prohibitions. Yet, some very small or special districts may have avoided the application of these rules up until now. Moreover, as local governments face increased costs relating to employee pensions and as work forces age, circumstances may be ripe for local governments to face increased allegations of age discrimination. Thus, small entities would be well-served to know about Mount Lemmon and consider how it may affect their internal policies and procedures.

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