When the U.S. Supreme Court returns to work the first Monday in October, one of the cases on its docket will involve a discrimination suit that originated in a small fire district here in Arizona. Two men sued the Mount Lemmon Fire District, claiming that they were terminated because of their age.
The district claimed that the two fire captains, who were both hired in 2000, were terminated in 2009 because they hadn’t volunteered for shifts to fight wildfires. The men filed a discrimination suit, arguing that they were terminated because they were the two oldest employees in the rural district — at 45 and 54 years old. They were replaced by younger firefighters with less experience.
The firefighters claimed that the district violated the federal Age Discrimination Employment Act that prohibits age discrimination. However, the judge dismissed the suit, saying that the law applies only to public agencies with at least 20 employees. A federal appeals court disagreed, ruling that the size restriction is only for private employers.
Among the groups taking an interest in this case are the U.S. Conference of Mayors and organizations representing counties and cities throughout the country. As an attorney representing these groups argues, “Small, rural special districts may not have other positions or locations to which they can transfer an employee in lieu of termination or layoffs.” Further, he notes, “When resources are strained, already-leanly staffed special districts encountering employment discrimination lawsuits may find it impossible to remain financially viable.”
A Tucson attorney representing the plaintiffs, however, argues that small districts can participate in insurance pools, which makes the argument about not being able to afford discrimination lawsuits moot. More importantly, he notes that the fire district and its supporters are seeking “a free pass under federal law to discriminate on the basis of age.”
The ruling in this case, which may not come until next year, could impact government employees in small agencies and districts throughout Arizona and the entire country.
If you believe that you’ve been terminated due to your age, it’s essential to find out what your rights are under state and federal law. Experienced Arizona workplace discrimination attorneys can provide important guidance and help you protect those rights and seek compensation for losses and damages.