Supreme Court Deals A Win and A Loss for States, Cities

Article excerpt

A pair of important Supreme Court decisions on federalism left cities with a mixed bag: one, affirmation of local authority in the case of a federal employment statute and, two, a defeat on a matter of state autonomy under the 10th amendment, in which NLC had submitted an amicus brief on the side of the state.

Cities came out on top in the case Kimel v. Florida, No. 98-791 (Jan. 11, 2000), and the state took a loss in Reno v. Condon, No. 98-1464 (January 12, 2000). An analysis of both cases follows.

Kimel v. Florida

In a clear victory for cities nationwide, the United States Supreme Court held that Congress could not force states and localities into federal court under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), because to do so exceeded its authority under Section 5 of the 14th Amendment. Kimel is an important case for cities as employers because it holds that there is no need for Congress to apply broad, one-size-fits-all federal legislation to states and localities in this area, and limits Congress' power to subject states and cities to often expensive federal litigation against theft express consent. On a broader scale, Kimel is an important case for the preservation of states' rights and federalism because it requires state and municipal employees to seek redress against theft state and municipal employers for alleged age discrimination claims in state courts, rather than in federal court under the ADEA. The National League of Cities filed a friend of the court brief in the Kimel case in support of the states of Alabama and Florida.

Background and Facts

At the time of its enactment the ADEA only applied to employers in the private sector. However, in 1974, Congress extended the application of the ADEA to the states and theft political subdivisions. The ADEA makes it unlawful for an employer "to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual or otherwise discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's age." 29 U.S.C. Section 623(a)(1).

The Kimel case is actually three separate cases with similar facts that were consolidated into one. The plaintiffs brought their lawsuits against the states of Florida and Alabama in federal court under the ADEA alleging age discrimination in such areas as failure to receive promotions, and employee evaluation systems and pay scale adjustments which had a disparate impact on older employees. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the states and the case was appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court's Decision and Analysis

Under the 11th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, a private individual cannot bring a federal lawsuit against a state in federal court unless the state consents. In other words, unless expressly waived, states have sovereign immunity against federal lawsuits brought by private individuals.

This general concept was most recently reaffirmed in the Supreme Court's recent trio of federalism cases of Alden v. Maine, Florida Prepaid Postsecondary Education Expense Board v. College Savings Bank, and College Savings Bank v. Florida Prepaid Postsecondary Education Expense Board. In order to determine whether the states' sovereign immunity had been preserved under the facts in the Kimel case, the Supreme Court had to answer two questions. First, whether Congress unequivocally expressed its intent to abrogate the sovereign immunity of the states when it enacted the ADEA, and if it did, whether Congress acted pursuant to a valid grant of constitutional authority.

The Supreme Court answered the first question affirmatively and held that the ADEA did contain express language evidencing Congress' intent to subject states to lawsuits in federal court and therefore abrogate theft sovereign immunity. The Court answered the second question with a resounding "no," and held that Congress lacked the authority to override the sovereign immunity of the states under both its Article I Commerce Clause powers and under Section 5 to the 14th Amendment. …