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Firefighters Win Age Discrimination Suit in U.S. Supreme Court

In a unanimous decision, justices say federal law protects older workers in small government agencies

A fire fighter standing next to a fire truck

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The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously Tuesday that employees of state and local governments are protected against age discrimination at work no matter how small their agency may be. 

John Guido and Dennis Rankin, two former firefighters in Arizona, sued the Mount Lemmon Fire District, arguing that the agency laid them off because of their ages — 46 and 54, respectively, at the time they were let go in 2009. The fire department claimed it was exempt from the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), which protects workers age 40 and older, because it had fewer than 20 workers.

But in the 8-0 ruling Tuesday, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that the 1974 amendments that expanded the protections of the federal age discrimination law “leave scant room for doubt” that state and local governments are employers covered by the ADEA regardless of their size. The newest associate justice, Brett Kavanaugh, did not participate in the ruling because he was not on the court last month when the case was argued.

“John Guido and Dennis Rankin are both very happy with the decision,” said Don Awerkamp, an attorney for the law firm that represented the two firefighters. “We hope that this ruling will stop at least some employers from discriminating on the basis of age and will help some employees avoid going through what John and Dennis have experienced.”

“We are very pleased that the Supreme Court unanimously made the right decision and held that the ADEA means what it says,” said Dara Smith, an attorney for AARP Foundation. “This is an important victory for older workers in the public sector, who deserve all the protections that Congress gave them.”

AARP and AARP Foundation, in partnership with the National Employment Lawyers Association, had filed an amicus, or friend of the court, brief in support of the two firefighters.

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