State and local political subdivisions employing fewer than 20 employees should reconfirm the defensibility of their employment policies and practices under the Age Discrimination and Employment Act (ADEA) and the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and various other laws in light of the unanimous ruling issued this morning by the United State Supreme Court holding that the ADEA applies to all state and local political subdivisions regardless of size.
In its ruling in Mount Lemmon Fire District v. Guido, – U.S. -, 2018 WL 5794639 (November 6, 2018) released this morning, the United States Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the ADEA applies to all state and local subdivisions regardless of the number of employees the political subdivision employs.
The Supreme Court’s ruling arose from an ADEA lawsuit brought by John Guido and Dennis Rankin against a small Arizona fire department, the Mount Lemmon Fire District (District) challenging their layoff by the District. Faced with a budget shortfall, the District laid off Guido and Rankin, who at the time were the District’s two oldest full-time firefighters. Guido and Rankin sued the Fire District, alleging that their termination violated the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), 81 Stat. 602, as amended, 29 U. S. C. §621 et seq. The Fire District sought dismissal of the suit on the ground that the District was too small to qualify as an “employer” within the ADEA’s compass.
In response to Guido and Rankin’s lawsuit, the District asserted that was not covered by the ADEA because its employment of fewer than 20 employees rendered it “too small” to qualify as an “employer” as defined by 29 U. S. C. §630(b). In its ruling against the Fire District this morning, the Supreme Court rejected this numerosity defense, holding instead that the ADEA applies to all political subdivisions regardless of the size of their workforce.
In the unanimous opinion authored by Justice Ginsburg, the Supreme Court pointed out that the ADEA definition of “employer” distinguishes between private sector employers and State and local political subdivisions. The Supreme Court noted that before 1974, State and local political subdivisions were exempt from the ADEA. In 1974, however, Congress added a special definition of “employer” for States and political subdivisions to the ADEA and FLSA when it amended the ADEA and FLSA to apply to all State and local government employers regardless of their size. Thus, since 1974, the ADEA and FLSA definitions of “employer” have read 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); 29 U. S. C. §203(d), (x).
In construing this definition, the Supreme Court weighed whether the phrase “also means” added new categories to the definition of “employer” or merely clarified that States and their political subdivisions are a type of “person” included in §630(b)’s first sentence. While acknowledging that various Courts of Appeals previously have reached differing conclusions concerning the appropriate interpretation, the Supreme Court ruled that the phase “also means” added a new category to the definition of “employer” for purposes of the ADEA. Accordingly, the Supreme Court rejected the District’s claim that the ADEA definition of “employer” includes the requirement of employment of at least 20 employees applicable to the ADEA’s private sector definition of “employer. Accordingly, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the ADEA applies to all State and local political subdivisions.
In light of the Supreme Court’s ruling, any State or local subdivision that has operated in reliance upon the now discredited interpretations of the ADEA or FLSA definitions of “employer” as applicable only to State or local governmental entities employing at least 20 employees immediately should take all necessary corrective action to bring their policies into compliance with the ADEA and FLSA. These governmental entities also should seek the advice of qualified legal counsel about the advisability of taking any retrospective action to self-correct any potential past deficiencies in compliance, if any, for which the entity might bear potential liability to the extent that the applicable state of limitations has not run on those claims.
 Justice Kavanaugh did not join in the opinion as he took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.
About the Author
Recognized by her peers as a Martindale-Hubble “AV-Preeminent” (Top 1%) and “Top Rated Lawyer” with special recognition LexisNexis® Martindale-Hubbell® as “LEGAL LEADER™ Texas Top Rated Lawyer” in Health Care Law and Labor and Employment Law; as among the “Best Lawyers In Dallas” for her work in the fields of “Labor & Employment,” “Tax: ERISA & Employee Benefits,” “Health Care” and “Business and Commercial Law” by D Magazine, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer is a practicing attorney board certified in labor and employment law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and management consultant, author, public policy advocate and lecturer widely known for 30+ years of management focused employment, employee benefit and insurance, workforce and other management work, public policy leadership and advocacy, coaching, teachings, and publications.
Highly valued for her rare ability to find pragmatic client-centric solutions by combining her detailed legal and operational knowledge and experience with her talent for creative problem-solving, Ms. Stamer’s clients include employers and other workforce management organizations; employer, union, association, government and other insured and self-insured health and other employee benefit plan sponsors, benefit plans, fiduciaries, administrators, and other plan vendors; domestic and international public and private health care, education and other community service and care organizations; managed care organizations; insurers, third-party administrative services organizations and other payer organizations; and other private and government organizations and their management leaders.
Throughout her 30 plus year career, Ms. Stamer has continuously worked with these and other management clients to design, implement, document, administer and defend hiring, performance management, compensation, promotion, demotion, discipline, reduction in force and other workforce, employee benefit, insurance and risk management, health and safety, and other programs, products and solutions, and practices; establish and administer compliance and risk management policies; comply with requirements, investigate and respond to government, accreditation and quality organizations, regulatory and contractual audits, private litigation and other federal and state reviews, investigations and enforcement actions; evaluate and influence legislative and regulatory reforms and other regulatory and public policy advocacy; prepare and present training and discipline; handle workforce and related change management associated with mergers, acquisitions, reductions in force, re-engineering, and other change management; and a host of other workforce related concerns. Ms. Stamer’s experience in these matters includes supporting these organizations and their leaders on both a real-time, “on demand” basis with crisis preparedness, intervention and response as well as consulting and representing clients on ongoing compliance and risk management; plan and program design; vendor and employee credentialing, selection, contracting, performance management and other dealings; strategic planning; policy, program, product and services development and innovation; mergers, acquisitions, bankruptcy and other crisis and change management; management, and other opportunities and challenges arising in the course of workforce and other operations management to improve performance while managing workforce, compensation and benefits and other legal and operational liability and performance.
Past Chair of the ABA Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group and, a Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, the American Bar Foundation and the Texas Bar Foundation, heavily involved in health benefit, health care, health, financial and other information technology, data and related process and systems development, policy and operations throughout her career, and scribe of the ABA JCEB annual Office of Civil Rights agency meeting, Ms. Stamer also is widely recognized for her extensive work and leadership on leading edge health care and benefit policy and operational issues. She regularly helps employer and other health benefit plan sponsors and vendors, health industry, insurers, health IT, life sciences and other health and insurance industry clients design, document and enforce plans, practices, policies, systems and solutions; manage regulatory, contractual and other legal and operational compliance; vendors and suppliers; deal with Medicare, Medicaid, CHIP, Medicare/Medicaid Advantage, ERISA, state insurance law and other private payer rules and requirements; contracting; licensing; terms of participation; medical billing, reimbursement, claims administration and coordination, and other provider-payer relations; reporting and disclosure, government investigations and enforcement, privacy and data security; and other compliance and enforcement; Form 990 and other nonprofit and tax-exemption; fundraising, investors, joint venture, and other business partners; quality and other performance measurement, management, discipline and reporting; physician and other workforce recruiting, performance management, peer review and other investigations and discipline, wage and hour, payroll, gain-sharing and other pay-for performance and other compensation, training, outsourcing and other human resources and workforce matters; board, medical staff and other governance; strategic planning, process and quality improvement; HIPAA administrative simplification, meaningful use, EMR, HIPAA and other technology, data security and breach and other health IT and data; STARK, antikickback, insurance, and other fraud prevention, investigation, defense and enforcement; audits, investigations, and enforcement actions; trade secrets and other intellectual property; crisis preparedness and response; internal, government and third-party licensure, credentialing, accreditation, HCQIA, HEDIS and other peer review and quality reporting, audits, investigations, enforcement and defense; patient relations and care; internal controls and regulatory compliance; payer-provider, provider-provider, vendor, patient, governmental and community relations; facilities, practice, products and other sales, mergers, acquisitions and other business and commercial transactions; government procurement and contracting; grants; tax-exemption and not-for-profit; 1557 and other Civil Rights; privacy and data security; training; risk and change management; regulatory affairs and public policy; process, product and service improvement, development and innovation, and other legal and operational compliance and risk management, government and regulatory affairs and operations concerns.
A former lead consultant to the Government of Bolivia on its Pension Privatization Project with extensive domestic and international public policy concerns in pensions, healthcare, workforce, immigration, tax, education and other areas, Ms. Stamer has been extensively involved in U.S. federal, state and local health care and other legislative and regulatory reform impacting these concerns throughout her career. Her public policy and regulatory affairs experience encompasses advising and representing domestic and multinational private sector health, insurance, employee benefit, employer, staffing and other outsourced service providers, and other clients in dealings with Congress, state legislatures, and federal, state and local regulators and government entities, as well as providing advice and input to U.S. and foreign government leaders on these and other policy concerns.
Author of leading works on a multitude of labor and employment, compensation and benefits, internal controls and compliance, and risk management matters and a Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, the American Bar Foundation and the Texas Bar Foundation, Ms. Stamer also shares her thought leadership, experience and advocacy on these and other related concerns by her service in the leadership of the Solutions Law Press, Inc. Coalition for Responsible Health Policy, its PROJECT COPE: Coalition on Patient Empowerment, and a broad range of other professional and civic organizations including North Texas Healthcare Compliance Association, a founding Board Member and past President of the Alliance for Healthcare Excellence, past Board Member and Board Compliance Committee Chair for the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas; former Board President of the early childhood development intervention agency, The Richardson Development Center for Children (now Warren Center For Children); current Vice Chair of the ABA Tort & Insurance Practice Section Employee Benefits Committee, current Vice Chair of Policy for the Life Sciences Committee of the ABA International Section, Past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Section, a current Defined Contribution Plan Committee Co-Chair, former Group Chair and Co-Chair of the ABA RPTE Section Employee Benefits Group, past Representative and chair of various committees of ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits; an ABA Health Law Coordinating Council representative, former Coordinator and a Vice-Chair of the Gulf Coast TEGE Council TE Division, past Chair of the Dallas Bar Association Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation Committee, a former member of the Board of Directors of the Southwest Benefits Association and others.
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