When two firefighters brought an age discrimination suit against their tiny fire district, the fire district defended itself by saying that the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) didn’t apply. According to its reading of the law, only employers with at least 20 employees were covered, and it didn’t meet that threshold. The firefighters argued that the 20-employee threshold only applies to private-sector employers. This jurisdictional question was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court.
The high court has just ruled unanimously that the 20-employee threshold does not apply to public-sector employers. Local, state and federal agencies of all sizes are covered by the law.
The question came down to statutory interpretation. When interpreting a statute, courts consider a number of factors, including how the writing is structured, comparisons with how similar statutes have been constructed, evidence of congressional intent and, if these factors do not point to a clear answer, public policy considerations.
The ADEA defines 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 interpreted the phrase “the term also means” as an attempt to add clarification to what it perceived as the main definition, “a person engaged in an industry affecting commerce who has twenty or more employees.” The firefighters interpreted the phrase as adding two additional definitions of employer.
The Supreme Court considered other employment law statutes with the same language, finding that the high court itself had previously ruled that this very language was an attempt to introduce parallel categories. Congressional intent also pointed to that interpretation. Finally, the court determined that the fire district’s interpretation would have resulted in the 20-employee threshold being applied to the first and third definitions but not the second.
The court also rejected the fire district’s complaint that applying the statute to tiny employers could jeopardize their operations. Writing for the court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg commented that “no untoward service shrinkages have been documented” despite the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission having long assumed the law applies to public agencies with fewer than 20 employees.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh did not participate in this decision.