SCOTUS Interprets the ADEA to Apply to State Entities Regardless of Size

By Zachary Anstett

Last week the Supreme Court held in Mt. Lemmon Fire District v. Guido, No. 17-587, 2018 WL 5794639 (U.S. Nov. 6, 2018), that state and local governments are “employers” covered by the ADEA regardless of their size. The unanimous opinion authored by Justice Ginsburg affirmed the Ninth Circuit’s decision that 29 U.S.C. § 630(b)’s two sentence structure and the expression “also means” at the start of the second sentence establish separate categories of what it means to be an “employer” under the ADEA. The unanimous decision did not include Justice Kavanaugh.

Facts and Procedural History

Due to budget cuts, the Mt. Lemmon Fire District, a political subdivision of Arizona, fired two of its eldest firefighters who were then aged 46 and 54. The firefighters sued Mt. Lemmon in the Federal District Court of Arizona alleging that their termination violated the ADEA. Mt. Lemmon moved to dismiss on the basis that Mt. Lemmon was too small to qualify as an “employer.” The District Court granted Mt. Lemmon’s motion and held that Mt. Lemmon did not have the required 20 employees during the relevant time frame. The Ninth Circuit reversed, and Mt. Lemmon appealed.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari to decide the narrow issue of whether the ADEA’s numerosity specification (20 or more employees) also applies to state entities. Holding that it does not, Justice Ginsburg and the Court relied on the plain meaning of the expression “also means” and how the ADEA is more analogous to the FLSA than Title VII.


Justice Ginsburg relied on the Ninth Circuit’s use of Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary and EEOC v. Wyoming, 460 U. S. 226 (1983), to define “also” as a word of enhancement and addition. Furthermore, the Court noted that when “also means” appears in the U.S. Code it is “typically carrying an additive meaning.”

Finally, even though Mt. Lemmon pressed the Court to interpret the ADEA narrowly like Title VII, which maintains a numerosity requirement for state entities, the Court refused and noted that the ADEA was much more akin to the FLSA. The Court concluded that like “the FLSA, the ADEA ranks States and political subdivisions as ‘employer[s]’ regardless of the number of employees they have.”

The Supreme Court took this case to resolve the conflict that has divided District Courts across the country on how the ADEA was to be applied to States and political subdivisions. Allowing this broadly scoped “employer” definition will be an asset for those who feel they have been discriminated against because of their age and will likely allow more plaintiffs to move through to discovery.