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ADEA Applies to Public Sector Employers of All Sizes

The U.S. Supreme Court has held that the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) prohibits age discrimination by all public sector employers irrespective of the number of employees working for them.
The ADEA precludes private employers with 20 or more employees from discriminating against individuals over the age of 40 based on their age. Originally understood to only apply to private employers, the statute was amended in 1974 to add a second sentence to the definition so that an employer “also means (1) any agent of such person [private employer], and (2) a State or political subdivision of a State...” Many courts, including four circuits, interpreted this new language to limit ADEA’s application to public employers with at least 20 employees as well.
Two firefighters over the age of 40 challenged this interpretation after they were fired from a small political subdivision of Arizona. The primary question was whether “also means” in the statue added new categories of liable employers or was clarifying the definition of employer. In a unanimous opinion, the Supreme Court ruled the new sentence created a new category of employers who could be held liable that was separate from the category of private employers with 20+ employees.
In reaching this decision, the Court rejected the argument that the ADEA should be interpreted like Title VII, as it is in many other instances. Title VII applies to employers with 15 or more employees, irrespective of whether the entity is public or private. According to the Court, the language of the two statutes on this issue was made deliberately different by Congress. The more apt comparison was found to be the Fair Labor and Standards Act which also applies to all public entities regardless of their size. The Supreme Court left open whether the language referring to “any agent of such person” could potentially impose individual liability as that issue was not before the court.