Keep Calm and Carry On Not Discriminating on the Basis of Age: Supreme Court Ruling Presents No Radical Changes for Employers, but Serves as a Reminder to Review Age-Discrimination Policies

11.12.18

On November 6, 2018, the United States Supreme Court determined that the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) applies to small subdivisions of the state that employ fewer than 20 employees. The case is Mount Lemmon Fire District v. Guido, and can be found here.

What was the case about?
Mt. Lemmon involved a small fire district in Arizona that laid off its two oldest full-time firefighters (who were 46 and 54 at the time). As most employers are aware, the ADEA protects older workers age 40 and above from discrimination in employment based on their age, which includes making decisions to lay off employees because they are older.

Does the Court’s decision change anything for other employers?
Although the decision doesn’t have an impact on employers with 20 or more employees, the attention that has been given to it highlights the ADEA and provides an opportunity for all employers to consider and ensure that they are engaging in best practices with respect to age discrimination.

But what about smaller subdivisions of the state?
The Court's opinion does not dramatically change the legal landscape even for political subdivisions of the state that employ fewer than 20 employees.

Although the Court's decision clarifies that all political subdivisions of the state—including counties, cities, fire districts, and irrigation and drainage districts—are subject to the ADEA's provisions even if they employ fewer than 20 employees, most (if not all) of those entities are already subject to state statutes prohibiting age discrimination in employment. And for the most part, the remedies available under the ADEA overlap with those available under state age-discrimination laws. So as a practical matter, while the Court's decision brings clarity to the ADEA's applicability, it likely will have only minimal impact on small political subdivisions in Oregon and Washington.

What should employers do in light of the Court's decision?
Even though the Court's decision will not have a radical impact on employers, there are some things that all employers can do in light of this case:

  • Expect increased federal enforcement of age-discrimination claims. Small public employers may experience additional attention from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)—the federal agency responsible for enforcing the ADEA and other federal employment laws—because age-discrimination complaints that might otherwise be reviewed by state agencies may also fall within the EEOC's jurisdiction.
  • Ensure that settlement agreements for older workers contain ADEA-compliant language. The Older Workers Benefit Protection Act (OWBPA)—which was enacted in 1990—amended the ADEA to include additional protections for older workers who enter into settlement agreements with their employers. Small public employers should ensure that settlement agreements with employees who are 40 or older comply with the ADEA, as amended by the OWBPA.
  • Review compensation and employment practices to ensure compliance with the ADEA. Mt. Lemmon also serves as a reminder of the risks of making employment decisions based on employees' age, so employers should proceed with caution when making decisions to promote, hire, or fire older employees to ensure that those decisions are made for legitimate nondiscriminatory reasons.

If you have questions about federal or state discrimination laws, please contact an attorney on Miller Nash Graham & Dunn's Employment Law and Labor Relations Team.

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