Supreme Court takes age discrimination suit from Arizona fire district

The Supreme Court agreed to consider an appeal from the Mount Lemmon Fire District, which challenged an age discrimination lawsuit by two former firefighters who said they were fired because of their ages. (Photo by Soyenixe Lopez/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court said Monday it will consider an Arizona case that asks whether the Age Discrimination in Employment Act applies to government agencies with fewer than 20 employees.

The case stems from the 2009 firing of Mount Lemmon Fire District Capts. John Guido and Dennis Rankin, who were the oldest employees in the department when the cuts were made for budget reasons.

The district said that Guido, then 46, and Rankin, then 54, were terminated not because of their age, but because they had not participated in volunteer wildland assignments, fighting fires in areas of natural vegetation.

After they were let go, Guido and Rankin filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which found the former firefighters had reasonable cause to believe they were fired because of their age. The two then sued the fire district in federal court for age discrimination.

Not only did the district deny the discrimination charge, it also claimed that the law should not apply to it, since it only employed 13 people, well below the 20-employee threshold at which a private company would become subject to age discrimination violations.

“The practical issue is the age discrimination issue should apply equally to both private employers and public employers,” said Jeffrey Matura, an attorney for the fire district.

Attorneys for the two firefighters did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday.

A federal district court in Arizona initially rejected Guido and Rankin’s suit, agreeing with the fire district that, with no more than 19 qualifying employees, it was below the 20-employee threshold and not subject to the federal law.

But a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed last summer, finding that all political subdivisions regardless of size must comply with the age discrimination protections and reversing the district court ruling.

The 9th Circuit decision conflicts with rulings in similar cases by appellate courts in the 6th, 7th, 8th and 10th circuits, all of which held that public subdivisions like the fire district should be regulated the same as private businesses.

The fire district appealed. While the Supreme Court announced without comment Monday that it will take the Mount Lemmon case, the high court often steps in to resolve such divides between circuit rulings.

“The 9th Circuit is the outlier that says, ‘No, private employers and public employees will play by different rules,'” Matura said.

Matura called the case “an important matter” and said he is confident that the courts will rule in the Mount Lemmon’s favor. But if the ruling goes the other way, he said, “it certainly could change the landscape around the country.”

“Everyone wakes up the next day with increased litigation exposure,” Matura said.