Does the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (the “ADEA”) apply to all public employers regardless of how many employees they have, or does it only apply to public employers with at least 20 employees? This is the question that was argued at the Supreme Court on October 1, 2018 in Mount Lemmon Fire District v. Guido. Small public employers now await a ruling that could have major implications on their potential liability under the ADEA in the future.

The facts of the case are straightforward. Mount Lemmon Fire District is a tiny fire district in Arizona that only had eleven employees. As a result of budget cuts, Mount Lemmon decided to eliminate two positions held by John Guido and Dennis Rankin–the two oldest employees in the fire district.

So, what did they do? They filed an age discrimination complaint in the United States District Court for the District of Arizona.  The District Court ruled in favor of Mount Lemmon and was convinced by its argument that it was not an “employer” under the ADEA because it had less than twenty employees. The Ninth Circuit reversed, and Guido and Rankin prevailed on their opposing argument. They claimed that the ADEA’s twenty-employee minimum does not apply to political subdivisions such as Mount Lemmon, and that Mount Lemmon is an “employer” covered by the ADEA.

Why the confusion? The definition of “employer” in the statute is unclear, according to Mount Lemmon. The parties disagree about whether the twenty-employee minimum, as the statute is plainly written, applies to the “state or political subdivisions of the state” or whether it is limited to private employers. The dispute now lies in the hands of the Supreme Court to decide. If Guido and Rankin prevail, the decision would greatly impact small public employers across the country because the ADEA would apply to them regardless of their size. In light of this, small public employers should prepare themselves for the possibility of ADEA coverage and review their policies and practices for ADEA compliance.