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Public-Sector Employees Are Making Lemonade Out of Lemmons

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Yesterday, the Supreme Court of the United States unanimously held in Mount Lemmon Fire District v. Guido that the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“the Act”) applies to state and local government employers, regardless of their size. The Act defines “employer” as “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). While the Act applies to private-sector employers with at least twenty employees, the Court noted that the terms “also means” added new categories to the definition – thus, the “twenty or more employees” qualifier does not apply to an employer who is a State or political subdivision of a State. In so holding, the Court broadened the reach of the Act beyond that of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), which applies to state and local governments only if they meet the numerosity specification.

What does this mean for public-sector employers?  An employee aged 40 years or older may now pursue an age discrimination claim/charge of discrimination against the employer under the Act, regardless of the employer’s size. In reality, the Court’s decision in Mount Lemmon Fire District is unlikely to impact private employers and is likely to have little impact on public employers – as the Court noted, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the agency which enforces the provisions of Title VII and the Act) has interpreted the Act to apply to government employers, regardless of size, for over 30 years. Nevertheless, the Act’s applicability to small public-sector employers is now more settled law. The opinion can be found here.