The United States Supreme Court ruled unanimously Tuesday that the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”) applies to small state and local government employers. In doing so, it shot down arguments made by one Arizona fire district that the law applies only to public entities of 20 or more employees. The law defines employers as a person “engaged in an industry affecting commerce who has twenty or more employees.” But it goes on to state that employer “also means any agent of such person and a State or political subdivision of a State.”

The question for the court: What does “also means” really mean? The court had little trouble deciding that it means that there are additional categories of employers included in the law’s reach. “First and foremost, the ordinary meaning of ‘also means’ is additive rather than clarifying.”

But the fire district argued that the language of ADEA should be read the same as Title VII — which does impose a numerosity requirement. The court rejected that argument, saying that the language in each statute is different and should be treated as such. The court also noted that since the majority of states already forbid age discrimination by political subdivisions of any size, applying the ADEA to these types of employers shouldn’t be a significant burden on them.

For Connecticut employers, the impact may be muted. Connecticut has long defined employers as “the state and all political subdivisions thereof and means any person or employer with three or more persons in such person’s or employer’s employ”. But the ruling makes it clear that a federal claim under ADEA may also be available — which could allow the employee to make a claim in federal court.

The case, Mount Lemmon Fire District v. Guido, can be downloaded here.