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How the Supreme Court Skirted ADEA Issues During Reductions in Force and What Must be Done to Fix It

Jack Gross was born in 1948, and grew up in Mt. Ayr, Iowa.[i] His father was an Iowa Highway Patrolman and his mother was a 3rd grade teacher.[ii] Throughout his childhood and into his adult life, health issues defined Mr. Gross.[iii] He developed chronic ulcerated colitis, and as a result underwent multiple operations involving the removal of his colon, and a part of his large intestine.[iv]When he graduated from Drake University with a B.S. in Personnel Management, he weighed 87 pounds.[v]

Upon graduating Mr. Gross went to work for Farm Bureau as a claims adjuster, eventually becoming the highest volume adjuster in the company.[vi]He stood out for his outstanding contributions, earned many professional designations, and began teaching classes to other employees.[vii]Mr. Gross’ exceptional work performance and contributions to his company were reflected in his annual reviews, which were in the top 3-5% of his company for 13 consecutive years.[viii]Yet, notwithstanding Mr. Gross’ improbable story, in 2003, all claims department employees over the age of 50 with a title of supervisor and above were demoted on the same day.[ix]Mr. Gross was replaced by a person he had hired who was in her early forties, did not have the required skills for the position as stated on the company job description, nor his breadth of experience.[x]Mr. Gross would later file an age discrimination lawsuit pursuant to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA)[xi]in federal court, and the rest as they say, is history.

On June 18, 2009, the Supreme Court of the United States decided Gross v. FBL Financial Services, Inc.,[xii] which simultaneously held that mixed-motive theories are never proper in ADEA cases and that a plaintiff bringing a disparate-treatment claim pursuant to the ADEA must prove that age was the “but-for” cause of the challenged adverse employment action.[xiii]  In effect, the Gross holding abrogated the mixed-motive theory presumably applicable to ADEA cases established in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins,[xiv]and led to a celebrated victory for employers to the detriment of older, ADEA protected employees just like Jack Gross, the prototypical individual that the ADEA was created to protect. 

While Gross has considerably heightened the burden placed upon ADEA plaintiffs, particularly given the near universal absence of direct evidence of age discrimination in ADEA cases,[xv] its holding imposes a logically impossible burden upon ADEA plaintiffs in Reduction in Force (RIF) cases that the Supreme Court seems to have not contemplated given that Gross did not involve a RIF.[xvi]  In short, during a RIF, an ADEA plaintiff always loses.  In order to correct this logical inconsistency, either the Supreme Court must grant certiorari to an ADEA RIF case to affirmatively correct its mistake, or Congress must pass legislation limiting the holding of Gross to non-RIF scenarios, if not all ADEA cases.

How Gross Prevents an ADEA RIF Plaintiff from Ever Prevailing at Trial

Gross prevents an ADEA RIF plaintiff from ever prevailing at trial because an employer will always be able to claim that a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the adverse action taken against the employee exists. Inherent in any RIF are financial troubles that force an employer to terminate some of its employees in an effort to remain in business; as a result, the courts have recognized that a RIF is a legitimate business justification for an adverse employment action.[xvii]

Consequently, prior to Gross, when an employer utilized a RIF as a legitimate business justification for an adverse employment action, the plaintiff was required to make an “additional showing” that age was a motivating factor in their termination in order to prevail using a mixed-motive theory of discrimination.[xviii]

However, because Gross simultaneously eliminated the mixed-motive theory as a viable option for ADEA plaintiffs and heightened the requisite showing necessary for a plaintiff to prevail from age as a “motivating-factor” of the adverse employment action to age as the “but-for” cause of the adverse employment action, such an “additional showing” can neverbe made under the law as it is currently interpreted.

Because an employer will always be able to claim that a RIF constitutes a legitimate business reason for termination, under Gross, a plaintiff cannot ever offer evidence that “illegal … motives … were the ‘true’ motives”[xix]for the adverse employment action taken against them.

As a result, an ADEA RIF plaintiff can never prove that “but-for” their age, the employer would not have initiated the adverse action against them given the ever-present excuse of a RIF. Thus, while Gross is detrimental to all ADEA plaintiffs, it is particularly prejudicial to ADEA plaintiffs whose adverse action is a result of a RIF, as it creates a logical impossibility for these plaintiffs to everhave a chance of prevailing against their employer. 

What the Supreme Court Can Do to Fix the Gross Problem

The Supreme Court can and needs to fix the Gross problem and the confusion it has created for lower courts by granting certiorari to an ADEA RIF case and explicitly stating that mixed-motive theories are and must be applicable to ADEA RIF cases, and that evidence of age discrimination can be considered a “motivating factor,” rather than the “but for” cause, of illegal age discrimination within the burden shifting framework articulated within McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green.[xx]

As of this moment, the lower district and circuit courts are confused as to the application of Gross and its relationship with the McDonnell Douglas prima facie case and burden-shifting framework. Furthermore, this confusion is certain to increase as more RIF and non-RIF ADEA cases are filed in the near future as a result of the current economic recession, and as the unworkable nature of the Gross holding in ADEA RIF cases is further exposed. Notably, post-Gross ADEA cases are relatively few and far between at the time this article is being written; however, early signs support the contention that the lower courts are not in conformity with how to interpret Gross.

The Tenth Circuit explicitly states that Gross has created some uncertainty regarding burden shifting in the ADEA context.[xxi]  The Jones decision discusses in detail the application of Gross to McDonnell Douglas and clearly states that the court will not overturn their prior decisions applying the burden-shifting framework to ADEA claims.[xxii]

Furthermore, the Sixth Circuit attempts to reconcile Gross’ “but for” language with the burden shifting test in McDonnell Douglas.  By applying similar language from the application of Title VII in McDonnell Douglas, that “where there is a reduction in force, a plaintiff must … show that age was a factor [emphasis added] in eliminating his position”[xxiii]the court attempts to pigeonhole the two decisions together.  The use of the language “a factor” instead of “the factor” in the Johnson decision enunciates the line that the court has drawn between “but for” causation of age discrimination and age being a “motivating factor” in determining whether illegal age discrimination is afoot. 

The Ninth Circuit on the other hand, has essentially followed Gross to the letter.[xxiv]  In the McFadden decision, the Ninth Circuit holds alongside the Supreme Court and agrees that the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework does not apply to ADEA claims, and that a plaintiff must carry the burden of persuasion throughout the case.  Therefore, no burden shifting occurs, and causation must be “but-for.”

These cases, et al., are the first evidence of post-Gross confusion, and illustrate the growing problem facing the lower courts as well as plaintiffs soon to bring mixed-motive age discrimination cases involving RIFs. Some circuits and district courts continue to apply theMcDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework and will consider whether age was a “motivating factor” of an adverse employment action, while others require a heightened burden of proof that age was the “but for” cause of an adverse employment action. Such varying interpretations of Gross will inevitably lead to circuit splits, the absence of uniformity in the application of federal law, and a future Supreme Court decision to clean up the mess.

Thus, the Supreme Court should grant certiorari to an ADEA RIF case and seek to dispel the impossible burden it has placed upon RIF plaintiffs.

What Congress Can Do to Fix the Gross Problem

Congress can fix the Gross problem by enacting legislation that limits the scope of the Gross decision to non-RIF ADEA cases, or, in the alternative, to all ADEA cases by explicitly stating that the mixed-motive theory articulated in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins,[xxv] as well as the burden shifting framework articulated in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green,[xxvi] are fully applicable to ADEA cases.

As this article is being written, both houses of Congress have responded to the Gross problem by proposing bills entitled the “Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act,”[xxvii] the stated purpose of which are “to amend the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 to clarify the appropriate standard of proof.”[xxviii]  While these bills clearly reflect Congressional understanding of the harm that Gross causes ADEA plaintiffs, their current language as well as their present place in the legislative process creates foreseeable problems that should be swiftly resolved.

First and foremost, both bills are presently tied up in Committees.[xxix]As a result, amidst a nationwide economic recession resulting in numerous corporate RIFs as discussed infra, plaintiffs filing age discrimination lawsuits while in post-Gross, pre-Congressional action “purgatory” will be left without a remedy.

Second, because such “purgatory plaintiffs” will likely exist given the current economic recession, Congress should seek to include retroactive language in the proposed bills in an effort to afford these plaintiffs a remedy. Currently, no such retroactive language exists in either bill proposal.[xxx]

Third, the proposed bills as presently written include no language recognizing the Gross problem’s disproportionate and logically impossible burden it places on ADEA RIF plaintiffs, as opposed to the more classic, non-RIF ADEA plaintiff.[xxxi]While it may be reasonably presumed that general language that disavows the Gross decision’s applicability to ADEA cases would prevent its application to ADEA RIF plaintiffs as well, there is no sense in leaving any provisions of these bills subject to judicial interpretation.

The role of Congress cannot be understated in fixing the Gross problem, and while it has taken the proper initial steps to remedy the subversion of federal law that Gross represents, timeliness, retroactivity, and precision in language choice to guarantee the protection of ADEA RIF plaintiffs soon to be effected is essential in ensuring that the rule of law is upheld.  As Justice Ginsburg famously stated in another recent travesty of judicial interpretation in the employment context,[xxxii]“the ball is in Congress' court.”[xxxiii]

Why Fixing the Gross Problem Matters Now More than Ever

A survey of ADEA charges filed with the EEOC from 1997 to 2009 indicates that in 2008 and 2009, more ADEA charges were filed with the EEOC than in any other fiscal year in the 12-year sample size.[xxxiv]Furthermore, a tremendous increase in ADEA charges is glaringly apparent from 2007 to 2008.[xxxv]While no known data exists to support the contention, it can be reasonably inferred that such a substantial rise in ADEA charges filed with the EEOC is a byproduct of the ongoing economic recession in the United States.

As this article is being written and during the time period reflected in the EEOC charge data, numerous corporate employers, all of which are subject to the protections of the ADEA, are reducing their workforces in droves in an effort to reduce operating costs and maintain profit margins. To name a few that can be quickly found with a simple Google search, the health insurer Humana,[xxxvi]  the discount retailer Target,[xxxvii]  the drug manufacturers Sanofi-Aventis,[xxxviii]Eli Lilly,[xxxix]and Bristol-Meyers Squib,[xl]  the oil giant Shell,[xli]  the healthcare giant Cardinal Health,[xlii]and the telecommunications provider AT&T,[xliii]are all reducing their workforces during the current economic recession. 

With every RIF that takes place between now and the moment that either the Supreme Court or Congress act to eliminate the applicability of the Gross decision to ADEA RIF cases if not ADEA cases as a whole, multitudes of ADEA protected plaintiffs adversely effected by a RIF that may or may not have a compelling case for illegal age-motivated discrimination against their employer, will ultimately be denied the legal protections afforded to them under federal law.[xliv]

Above all else, the Supreme Court, Congress, and the readers of this article must remember that people like Jack Gross are exactly those that the ADEA was meant to protect.  Now, the Supreme Court has to fix its mistake, or Congress must do it for them.

[i]Testimony of Jack Gross:  Hearings Before the Senate Judiciary Comm., 111th Cong. (2010).










[xi]29 U.S.C.A 621 (1967)

[xii]129 S. Ct. 2343 (2009).


[xiv]109 S. Ct. 1775 (1989).

[xv]See Generally, Desert Palace, Inc. v. Costa, 123 S.Ct. 2148 (2003).

[xvi]See 129 S.Ct. 2343 (2009).

[xvii]See Hardin v. Hussmann Corp., 45 F.3d 262 (8th Cir. 1995); Coleman v. Quaker Oats Co., 232 F.3d 1271 (9th Cir. 2000).

[xviii]See Hardin v. Hussmann Corp., 45 F.3d 262 (8th Cir. 1995).

[xix]NLRB v. Transp. Mgmt. Corp., 103 S. Ct. 2469, 2473 (1983).

[xx]93 S. Ct. 1817 (1973).

[xxi]Jones v. Okla. City Pub. Schs., 617 F.3d 1273, 1278 (10th Cir. 2010).


[xxiii]Johnson v. Franklin Farmers Cooperative, 378 F. Appx. 505, 509 (6th Cir. 2010).

[xxiv]McFadden v. Krause, 357 F. Appx. 17 (9th Cir. 2009).

[xxv]109 S. Ct. 1775 (1989).

[xxvi]93 S. Ct. 1817 (1973).

[xxvii]H.R. 3721, 111th Cong. (2009), 2009 FD H.B. 3721 (NS) (Westlaw), See also S. 1756, 111th Cong. (2009), 2009 FD S.B. 1756(NS) (Westlaw).

[xxix]Id. (H.R. 3721 presently rests in the Subcommittee on Health, Labor, Employment, and Pensions, while S. 1756 presently rests in the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.)

[xxxi]See Id.

[xxxii]Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 550 U.S. 618, 127 S. Ct. 2162 (2007)

[xxxiii]Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 550 U.S. 618, 661, 127 S. Ct. 2162, 2188 (2007) (Ginsburg, J., Dissenting).

[xxxiv]http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/statistics/enforcement/adea.cfm (24,582 charges were filed in 2008 and 22,778 charges were filed in 2009.)

[xxxv]Id. (Only 19,103 charges were filed in 2007.)

[xxxvi]Catherine Larkin and Alex Nussbaum, Humana Plans to Reduce Workforce by 1,400 This Year, Bloomberg Businessweek, Feb. 17, 2010, http://www.businessweek.com/news/2010-02-17/humana-plans-to-reduce-workf...

[xxxvii]Scott Mayerowitz and Alice Gomstyn, Target Among the Latest Chain of Grim Layoffs: Major Companies From Communications to Retail Layoff 40,000; More Americans Lose Jobs, ABC News, Jan. 27, 2009,http://abcnews.go.com/Business/CEOProfiles/story?id=6731375&page=1

[xxxviii]Linda A. Johnson, Sanofi-Aventis to Reduce US Workforce by 1,700, The Boston Globe, Oct. 8, 2010, http://www.boston.com/news/health/articles/2010/10/08/sanofi_aventis_to_...

[xxxix]Eli Lilly to Reduce Workforce, United Press International, Sept. 14, 2009, http://www.upi.com/Business_News/2009/09/14/Eli-Lilly-to-reduce-workforc...

[xl]Ellen Gibson, Bristol-Myers to Cut 3% of Workforce to Reduce Costs, Bloomberg Businessweek, Sept. 23, 2010,


[xli]Shell To Layoff Workforce To Reduce Cost, Energy Business Review, April 30, 2009, http://utilitiesnetwork.energy-business-review.com/news/shell_to_layoff_...

[xlii]Press release, Cardinal Health, Cardinal Health to Reduce Workforce to Respond to Economic Conditions, (March 31, 2009.)

http://cardinalhealth.mediaroom.com/index.php?s=43&item=295 (

[xliii]AT&T to reduce workforce by 12,000, San Antonio Business Journal, Dec. 4, 2008,


[xliv]See the Age Discrimination in Employment Act at 29 U.S.C.A 621 (1967)

© Copyright 2022 Charles “Chip” William Hinnant III and John Erwin Barton National Law Review, Volume , Number 335

About this Author

Charles Hinnant, Law Student, Charlotte Law School

Charles “Chip” William Hinnant III is a 2L at the Charlotte School of Law.  He received his B.S. in Political Science from the College of Charleston where he was the managing editor of his college newspaper.  He is currently a member of the Moot Court team and serves as a teaching assistant for civil procedure and legal writing. Upon graduation, he desires to represent plaintiffs in general litigation, including healthcare, insurance, and employment matters, as well criminal defendants for drug and other related crimes.

John Barton, Law Student, Charolette School of Law

John Erwin Barton is a 2L at the Charlotte School of Law.  He graduated Cum Laude from Washington State University with a degree in Sociology.  He is a member of Phi Delta Phi, Order of the Crown, and an associate editor of the Law Review.  Upon graduation he hopes to work for the Department of Justice within the Civil Rights division or with a private firm handling civil rights issues