Supreme Court Broadens Reach of Age Discrimination Law

Three years after enacting the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, the United States Congress enacted the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”) of 1967, which, like its name suggests, prohibits age discrimination in employment. In adopting the law, Congress found “older workers find themselves disadvantaged in their efforts to retain employment, and especially to regain employment when displaced from their jobs,” “the incident of unemployment, especially long-term unemployment … is, relative to the younger ages, high among older workers,” and, “discrimination in employment because of age burdens commerce and the free flow of goods in commerce.” 29 U.S.C. § 621(a)(1)-(4).

The ADEA originally applied only to private sector employers, but in 1974, Congress amended the ADEA to cover state and local governments. Since 1974, the ADEA has defined covered employers as: “a person engaged in an industry affecting commerce who has twenty or more employees…. The term also means … 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….” 29 U.S.C. § 630(b). Before going further, a quick course on our federal court structure. 

The federal district courts in Iowa (where cases are first tried in front of a judge or jury) are part of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. If someone is unhappy with a result in the district court, they appeal to the Court of Appeals. If someone is unhappy with the ruling from the Court of Appeals, they can appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States, which may, but is not required to, review the decision of the Court of Appeals. Decisions of the Supreme Court apply to all courts of appeal and district courts, and all decisions of the courts of appeal apply to the district courts within their circuit. In other words, the federal district courts in Iowa are required to apply the decisions of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court.

Back in 1987, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois decided the ADEA only applies to State or local government agencies with 20 or more employees. Schaefer v. Transportation Media, Inc., 1987 WL 5426 at *3 (N.D. Ill. Jan. 13, 1987). Instead of recognizing the plain language of the law, which covers (1) private employers with 20 or more employees, and (2all state and local government employers, the court “interpreted” the meaning of the law to make it apply to fewer employers. Luckily, since this was a district court decision and not an appeals court decision, other district courts were not required to apply the same rule.

More than a decade later, on September 9, 1998, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals cited theSchaefer case as its authority for deciding “the twenty-employee minimum imposed on private employers also applies to agencies or instrumentalities of a state or political subdivision of a state.” Palmer v. Arkansas Council on Economic Educ., 154 F.3d 892, 896 (8th Cir. 1998). This decision was just as wrong as the earlier Schaefer decision, but now it applied to all of the district courts in the Eighth Circuit. Every federal district court in Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota was required to apply the rule, which wrongly limited the ADEA to government employers with more than 20 employees.

Unfortunately, once the Eighth Circuit decided this rule, it could only be revised if Congress amended the ADEA, the entire Eighth Circuit decided to change the rule (through an “en banc” decision), or the Supreme Court decided the rule was wrong. Justice often prevails, but sometimes it drags along slower than a snail.

Yesterday, in its first decision of the 2018 term, the Supreme Court broadened the reach of the ADEA to include all state and local government employers. It took 20 years for the Supreme Court to reject the Eighth Circuit’s rule, but it happened. As of yesterday, every state and local government employee is protected by the federal age discrimination law even if their employer employs fewer than 20 employees. The decision is not some feat of legal power lifting; instead, it is a straightforward case of statutory interpretation based on the plain language of a statute without delving in to the muddy waters of legislative intent. The case is Mount Lemmon Fire District v. Guido.

Key takeaway: All state and local government employees are covered by the ADEA. If you are a state or local government employee who has been discriminated against because of your age, contact our office.

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