“The Letter of the Law” – SCOTUS Uses Grammar to Grant More Protection from Age Discrimination and Retaliation

Mount Lemmon Fire District v. Guido (No. 17-587), the November 2018 Supreme Court of the United States decision, broadens protection from age discrimination to more employees of government employers.

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) already protects people over the age of forty (40) who work for private employers with more than twenty (20) employees, but it was not clear whether employees of a government employer with fewer than twenty (20) employees had the same protection. Violations of the ADEA can result in liability for back pay, front pay, liquidated damages and attorneys fees. There are many government employers, or "political subdivisions", with fewer than 20 employees, so it was important to determine just what they could be liable for.

In this case, it was the Mount Lemmon Fire District, a political subdivision of Arizona. The fire District was having a bad financial year, so they fired their two oldest (and most expensive) employees, fire captains John Guido and Dennis Rankin. John and Dennis sued the Fire District, saying they were protected by the ADEA. The Fire Department tried to escape liability by saying they were not technically an "employer" under the ADEA because they had fewer than 20 employees, so were not subject to the ADEA.

The district court agreed that the Fire District was not an "employer", but a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit reversed, siding with John and Dennis. The case then went to the Supreme Court where, in a unanimous (8-0) decision authored by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Court held that the ADEA applies to all state political subdivisions, regardless of the number of employees there employed.

Let's look at how they got there. Basically this is where grammar comes in handy. The ADEA is written as follows:

"The term 'employer' means a person engaged in an industry affecting commerce who has twenty or more employees...The term also means (1) any agent of such a person, and (2) a State or political subdivision of a State..." 29 U. S. C. §630(b).

The Court looked at the plain language of the statute and found that the fact that the definition is broken into two sentences, and includes the words "also means" establishes two different categories:

1. persons engaged in an industry affecting commerce with 20 or more employees; and

2. states or political subdivisions.

By applying this logic, the Court was also able to determine that the second category has no numerical limitation.

As an example, if a definition said: "the term 'airplane' means a vehicle propelled by a minimum of two jet engines for air travel. The term also means a vehicle that uses propeller power to achieve air travel," we would understand that the two sentences, and the words "also means" indicate that the two things listed as examples of airplanes are entirely separate, and should be regarded as such. We would further understand that just because category one (jet planes) requires a minimum of two jet engines, category two (propeller planes) states no minimum number of propellers, and could very well have only one and still be considered an airplane under the definition.

By using grammar, the Supreme Court determined that the Fire District, and all other States and political subdivisions, are subject the provisions of the ADEA, regardless of their number of full time employees.

The lessons to be learned here are not only are all government employers barred from discriminating against employees based on their age, but also the way statutes are written (or "the letter of the law") can have real impact on the outcome of a case.