|Hiring Age Limit for Fire Fighters Held Violation of Equal Protection|
Montana supreme court struck down a state law that held that a person could not be over age 34 when hired as a fire fighter. The law had no rational basis in protecting the public or the fire fighters, so was a violation of equal protection rights under the state constitution.
Equal Protection; Age Discrimination; Rational Basis
|C A S E S U M M A R Y|
Jaksha was born in 1970. He applied to be a firefighter for Silver Bow County. Part of the application process included a written and physical exam given by the Montana Firefighters’ Testing Consortium that represents fire departments around the state. Jaksha passed the exam and, in 2004, he ranked second among applicants in the county. When a position became open in June, 2005, Jaksha was told he would not be hired because state law requires that a firefighter, when hired, “shall not be more than 34 years of age,” and he was 35. He sued for age discrimination, contending that the age limitation was unconstitutional as it violated his right to equal protection under the Montana constitution. The trial court held for the county. Jaksha appealed.
Reversed. The trial court was incorrect to focus on the Bona Fide Occupational Qualification (BFOQ). The suit was based on the constitutionality of the age limit, so the BFOQ issue is not relevant. The question is whether placing an age limit of 34 years is rationally related to the government objective of protecting the safety of firefighters and the public. Since there is no factual or empirical basis for drawing a cut-off point at 34 years of age, the age limit is wholly arbitrary. While the working life of a firefighter who begins work at age 35 or later may be shorter than one who begins work earlier, it does not imply that safety is compromised. If an individual passes the written and physical tests, age bears no rational relation to the objective of protecting public safety by providing fire fighting services. The County is not liable for damages because it properly relied upon a law that it presumed to be valid.
Jaksha v. Butte-Silver Bow County, ---P.3d--- (2009 WL 2449608, Sup. Ct., Mont., 2009)
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