SCOTUS Decision Could Lead To More Age Discrimination Lawsuits


Two tiny words are going to have a huge impact on small public-sector employment litigation and perhaps private sector employers across the country. The Supreme Court of The United States (SCOTUS) recently decided the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) applies much more broadly than previously applied based on the words “also means.” The court’s ruling will likely lead to an increase in age discrimination lawsuits.

Mount Lemmon Fire District v. Guido

Before SCOTUS heard arguments in Mount Lemmon Fire District v. Guido, appeals courts across the country disagreed on how the ADEA should be applied. The ADEA prohibits age discrimination against employees and potential job applicants aged forty years or older. This applies to states and all political subdivisions of states. The ADEA goes on to define an “employer” as a person who has “20 or more employees;” but further includes “a State or political subdivision of a State” and “any agent of such a person” within the definition as well. The question put before the court in Mount Lemmon Fire District v. Guido was whether the ADEA applied to political subdivisions with less than 20 employees. Mount Lemmon Fire District v. Guido arose after two firefighters were laid off in an Arizona fire district. The fire district argued that the ADEA did not apply because it had less than 20 employees.

“Also Means”

The ADEA is very specific about who it applies to. After defining an employer as someone with 20 or more employees, the next sentence begins with “The term also means” and goes on to list political subdivisions. SCOTUS determined that the phrase “also means” was “additive rather than clarifying,” meaning the ADEA can be applied to individuals with 20 or more employees OR political subdivisions regardless of the number of employees.

Implications for Employment Lawsuits

With the Supreme Court’s recent decision broadening the application of the ADEA, employers can expect to see more age discrimination lawsuits. Some of these lawsuits will be frivolous and clog up the court system while costing employers money in legal fees. The ruling will also allow for legitimate plaintiffs to come forward and hold employers accountable for age discrimination. What was not determined was whether “also means” applies to “any agent of such a person” in such a way to impose liability on individuals. The Supreme Court expressly declined to rule on the issue.

Employment Litigation Lawyers

In light of the SCOTUS decision, employers should reassess their anti-discrimination policies and procedures and their severance and settlement agreements to confirm they are in compliance with the ADEA. Furthermore, age discrimination lawsuits will need to be handled by experienced employment litigation lawyers. If you would like to speak with one of our attorneys to discuss your employment issues, contact us today.