Court gives firefighters a second chance in age-discrimination case

A federal appeals court reinstated an age-discrimination lawsuit by two former firefighters against the Mount Lemmon Fire District. The 9th Circuit said the law plainly applied to state agencies like the fire district, bucking findings by four other court circuits. (Photo by Tim Evanson/Creative Commons)

WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court Monday said two former firefighters can sue the Mount Lemmon Fire District for age discrimination in their firing, a suit that had earlier been thrown out by a lower court.

A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the plain language of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act shows that it applies to political subdivisions of the state, like fire agencies, as well as to private employers. It ordered the case back to district court for a rehearing.

The ruling contradicts findings by four other circuits on the question of who is an “employer” under the act, but the 9th Circuit judges said those courts had wrongly tried to determine “congressional intent, rather than … the ordinary meaning of the text.”

The circuit’s reasoning was welcomed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which had joined the case on the side of the firefighters.

“The EEOC is gratified that the Ninth Circuit agreed with the EEOC’s plain language argument that the ADEA covers all political subdivisions, even if they do not have 20 employees,” Anne Noel Occhialino, senior appellate attorney of the EEOC, said in a statement Monday.

Attorneys for the fire district did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.

The Mount Lemmon Fire District was sued by John Guido and Dennis Rankin, who were hired by the district in 2000 and were both serving as captains when they were fired in 2009. At the time of their dismissals, Guido was 46 and Rankin was 54, making them the oldest full-time employees of the district, according to the court opinion.

The two filed age-discrimination complaints with the EEOC, which found reasonable cause to believe that the district violated the age-discrimination law in their firing, allowing them to sue in federal court.

But the lower court threw out their case, agreeing with the fire district that the law did not apply to it because the district did not meet the threshold of 20 employees that the law requires for an employer to be subject to the ADEA.

Besides the 20-employee rule, the ADEA defines “employer” as an agent of such a company or a state or political subdivision of a state.

Other courts have said that the way the law was written – saying employers “also” included government office – could be read to mean that the 20-person rule also applied to those offices. It was on those grounds that the district court dismissed Guido and Rankin’s claim.

But the appeals panel said Monday that the law was clear: “Also” meant government agencies are subject to the law, in addition to employers with 20 or more employees.

“If Congress had wanted to include the second sentence definitions of employer in the first sentence, it could have used the word ‘included,'” Circuit Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain wrote in Monday’s ruling. “The use of separate sentences and the word ‘also’ combine to create distinct categories in which clarifying language for one category does not apply to the other categories.”

O’Scannlain acknowledged that the rulings by other circuits gave the fire district a “powerful rebuttal,” but he rejected those courts’ claims that the law is ambiguous, and said they should have stuck the plain text of the act.

“Courts should rarely depart from a statute’s clear meaning because it risks creating a perception that they are inserting their own policy preferences into a law,” O’Scannlain wrote. “Here, there is no valid justification to depart from the plain meaning of the language and to adopt another interpretation.”

An attorney for Guido and Rankin welcomed the ruling.

“We received the opinion this morning and were very pleased, as I’m sure will be the firefighters we represent,” Shannon Giles, the attorney, said.