Employees of a state as an employer may not sue their employer for alleged violation of the ADEA or similar acts of Congress
Kimel v Board of Regents, 528 U.S. 62
Section 58 of the Civil Service Law sets out minimum and maximum age qualifications for initial appointment as a police officer by political subdivisions of New York State other than the City of New York.
Sometimes this “maximum age” for appointment as a police officer was held to be a violation of Age Discrimination in Employment Act [ADEA]. At other times, the “maximum age” for appointment to law enforcement positions was “exempted” from the provisions of the ADEA by Congress.
Now the U.S. Supreme Court has said that federal courts do not have jurisdiction to consider “age discrimination” law suits filed under the ADEA, dismissing appeals in cases involving:
1. 36 current and former Florida State University faculty members who complained that they were denied salary increases in violation of ADEA;
2. A Florida corrections officer, Wellington Dick, who contended that his age was one of the considerations that resulted in his being denied a promotion; and
3. Faculty members of an Alabama state-run college who claimed that they were denied promotions and other benefits such as sabbatical leaves and committee assignments because of their age.
The Supreme Court held that state workers cannot sue their employer in federal court for alleged violations of ADEA.
This is consistent with the high court’s rulings in other recent cases limiting Congress’ efforts to subject states to federal law under statutes adopted pursuant to the “commerce clause” such as Alden v Maine, 527 U.S. 706, a case involving suing states in federal court for alleged violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act.*
The high court said that the 11th Amendment bars a state employee from suing his or her employer in federal court without its consent.
In effect, the court held that the federal courts do not have any jurisdiction to consider suits brought against states by its workers pursuant to legislation enacted by Congress under color of the commerce clause.
Another element in these cases: allegations that actions by the states involved violated the 14th Amendment.
The majority’s response to these 14th Amendment claims in this 5 to 4 decision may have a significant impact in resolving pending and future law suits involving public personnel law and employment in the public sector brought in federal court.
In response to arguments concerning these 14th Amendment claims Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said that "States may discriminate on the basis of age without offending the 14th Amendment if the age classification in question is rationally related to a legitimate state interest."
The Supreme Court probably will continue to apply this rationale in cases involving tests of other federal civil rights laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act.
However, in Alden, the Supreme Court pointed out that the 11th Amendment applies only to states, commenting that political subdivisions of a state could not claim such immunity.
Thus, the Alden ruling indicates that there is an “important limit” to the principle of sovereign immunity barring suits against States -- such immunity does not extend to suits brought against a municipal corporation or other governmental entity that is not an arm of the State.
In each of these three cases, a state was the defendant. As Section 58 is a “state-wide” law adopted by the State Legislature, it could be argued that the Supreme Court’s rulings concerning both the 11th Amendment and the 14th Amendment apply should the age limitations set by Section 58 be challenged.
In any event, the court’s views with respect to the impact of the 14th amendment in cases of alleged discrimination may prove significant insofar as both the state as an employer and a political subdivision of a state as an employer, is concerned.
* The Commerce Clause has been traditionally used by Congress to adopt laws in order to regulate “interstate commerce.”