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AARP Supports Firefighters’ Age Discrimination Case at Supreme Court

Federal protection for employees of small public agencies is ‘vital’

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In a lawsuit that could have broad impact on older Americans who work for smaller public agencies, the Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case of two Arizona firefighters who say they lost their jobs because of their ages.

AARP and AARP Foundation, in partnership with the National Employment Lawyers Association, Thursday filed an amicus, or friend of the court, brief in support of the two firefighters. The legal question the court will consider is whether the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) protects older workers who are employed by public agencies that have fewer than 20 employees. The law specifically exempts private businesses that have no more than 20 employees, but courts have disagreed on whether that exemption extends to public employers.

In 2009 the Mount Lemmon Fire District dismissed John Guido and Dennis Rankin, when they were age 46 and 54, respectively. At the time, the two men — who were captains in the paramedic unit — were told they were chosen for layoffs because they did not participate in the department’s voluntary shifts for fighting wildfires. Guido and Rankin, who had been the district’s two oldest employees, sued for age discrimination.

A district court ruled in favor of the Mount Lemmon Fire District, saying that the ADEA only covers public employers if they have 20 or more workers. Guido and Rankin appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which reversed the previous ruling, noting that there is no minimum number of employees when it comes to an ADEA-covered public "employer."

That brings the case to the Supreme Court, which has scheduled arguments in the lawsuit for Oct. 1, the first day of its next session.

“The ADEA limits coverage of private employers to those with at least 20 employees, but the act’s separate language on public employers has no such limit,” says Dan Kohrman, senior attorney for AARP Foundation Litigation. “The ADEA’s protections at issue are vital for older employees like John Guido and Dennis Rankin. AARP believes the court should uphold them as they were enacted.”

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