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High Court: Age discrimination law applies to small government agencies

U.S. Supreme Court (Photo by Architect of the Capitol)

U.S. Supreme Court (Photo by Architect of the Capitol)

Two former Mount Lemmon firefighters have won the right to sue the tiny department for  age discrimination.

In a unanimous ruling Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected arguments by attorneys for the district located outside of Tucson that they were not subject to the federal anti-discrimination laws. The district’s attorney had said only entities with at least 20 employees had to comply.

But Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the court, said that defies the actual reading of the law.

Ginsburg acknowledged that Congress did put in a 20-employee floor for private employers. But she said the statute contains no such minimum for government employers like the fire district.

The decision has implications nationwide, subjecting other small local governments to the same anti-discrimination laws that larger entities already must obey.

Tuesday’s ruling does not guarantee that the pair, John Guido and Dennis Rankin, will get any money from the district. But it does give them a right to sue for damages, something they were denied by the trial judge who threw their case out of federal court after concluding the district was just too small to be subject to the law.

Attorney Don Awerkamp said they will seek the wages they would have made, not only since they were fired in 2009 but also what they would have made in the future. He also said that if they prove their case of discrimination they are entitled to “liquidated damages” which could equal their lost wages.

According to court records, Guido and Rankin were both hired by the fire district in 2000. They were the two oldest full-time employee at the district when they were fired in 2009, Guido at 46 and Rankin at 54.

The pair filed an age-discrimination complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. That agency found “reasonable cause” to believe the district violated the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, paving the way for the lawsuit.

But the case came to a halt with the trial judge’s ruling that they were not entitled to the protections of the law.

The district contends – and likely will argue at trial – that the pair were let go in a cost-cutting move and were chosen because they had not volunteered for wildland fire fighting. But Awerkamp said that argument holds no water.

“One of the employees that the fire district tapped to replace Mr. Guido and Mr. Rankin as a ranking captain had gone on no such assignments in the preceding two years,” he argued to the high court.

Awerkamp said Guido is now training firefighters for the Arizona National Guard and Rankin, who had been a police officer, is working security for the Tucson Unified School District.

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