Amazingly, despite the law being clear for many years that age discrimination in employment is illegal, and despite the fact that both research and experience have shown the value of mature workers, age discrimination against older employees continues to be widespread in New Jersey and the country at large. Both the Federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act and New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination provide strict prohibitions against employers and supervisors discriminating against older employees.
Sometimes, however, the boundaries of these laws are unclear, and guidance from the Courts is required. On November 6, 2018, the United States Supreme Court issued an important decision affecting the rights of state and local government employees under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.
The Mount Lemmon Fire District Case and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act
The facts of the case, Mount Lemmon Fire District v. Guido, were relatively undisputed. The Mount Lemmon Fire District in Arizona was facing a budget shortfall and therefore laid off two firefighters, John Guido and Dennis Rankin. Guido, age 46, and Rankin, age 54, were the two oldest firefighters in the District. Rankin and Guido filed suit, alleging that their termination violated their rights under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, known as the ADEA.
The District argued that it was exempt from the ADEA’s jurisdiction because it had less than 20 employees. The definitions section of the ADEA provides the controlling language:
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 . . . .
The Court’s unanimous opinion, written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, made short work of this argument. Justice Ginsberg explained that the law is perfectly clear that the 20 employee limitation applied only to private sector employers in industries affecting commerce, and not to state and local government entities. As employers under the ADEA, state and local governments stand in a separate category, and all of them are covered by the ADEA ‘s requirements. Justice Ginsberg explained:
We hold that §630(b)’s two-sentence delineation, and the expression “also means” at the start of the second sentence, combine to establish separate categories: persons engaged in an industry affecting commerce with 20 or more employees; and States or political subdivisions with no attendant numerosity limitation. “[T]wenty or more employees” is confining language, but the confinement is tied to §630(b)’s first sentence, and does not limit the ADEA’s governance of the employment practices of States and political subdivisions thereof.
Thus, it is clear that the ADEA protects New Jersey state and local government employees from age discrimination regardless of the size of their employers.
Age Discrimination Protections Under New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination
Fortunately, while the Supreme Court clearly made the right decision extending the ADEA’s requirements to protect all state and local government employees, this question has never really been a problem for New Jersey government employees because they are protected by New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination (known as the “LAD”). The LAD gives employees greater substantive and procedural rights. Indeed, not only does the LAD protect older employees from age discrimination, the New Jersey Supreme Court has held that it even protects younger employees from reverse age discrimination. (That case, Bergen Commercial Bank v. Sisler, is a great example of just how broad the LAD’s anti-discrimination protections really are). The language of the LAD itself and New Jersey Supreme Court case law makes it clear that the LAD applies to New Jersey state and local governmental employers.
Our employment law attorneys represent employers and employees in all phases of employment law, including age discrimination. We have extensive experience in handling litigation and negotiations in both the private and public sectors. Call us at (973) 890-0004 or email us to schedule a consultation. We can help.