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By September 1, 2011No Comments

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit has ruled that an employer had legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for laying off its three oldest employees through a reduction in force (RIF). The Court found that the employees, who sued their employer for age discrimination under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), failed to prove that the employer’s stated reason for the RIF and the criteria it used to determine which employees to let go were pretextual.

The Case: In Rahlf v. Mo-Tech Corp., Inc., after a manufacturer of molds for the automobile, medical, consumer products, and computer industries laid off its three oldest employees as part of a RIF, the employees sued for age discrimination under the ADEA. The employer claimed that the RIF was necessary due to a change in client needs and anticipated reductions in workload and profitability. The employer further explained that technological advances in the mold-making process reduced the company’s need for manual mold makers such as the plaintiffs. To determine which mold makers to lay off, the employer ranked each based on several factors, including their proficiency with the new computerized manufacturing process, general mold-making efficiency, and management’s personal knowledge of each employee’s work performance. Based on these criteria, management agreed that the three plaintiffs should be let go.

The Ruling: The Eighth Circuit upheld the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the employer, rejecting the plaintiffs’ claim that the employer’s stated reasons for the RIF were meant to conceal the real, discriminatory reasons for their terminations. The employees argued that the RIF was not necessary because within a year after they were fired, the employer hired five new employees. The court, however, noted that none of the new hires were mold makers. Rather, the new employees filled lesser skilled positions or were skilled in the computerized manufacturing process. The court also held that the fact that the remaining mold makers were busy and the company’s sales increased after the three employees were terminated did not support an inference that the RIF itself was pretextual. The court ruled that an employer does not have to demonstrate financial distress to justify its RIF decision, and then rejected the employees’ attack on the employer’s methods to determine which mold makers to terminate.

The employees contended that the employer’s failure to review positive performance evaluations and its reliance on the subjective evaluations of management were evidence of pretext. However, the court noted that given the small number of mold makers considered for the RIF (11) and management’s close involvement with the daily operations, subjective knowledge of each employee’s work performance and skills was relevant to the ultimate termination decision. Moreover, the employer relied on both objective and subjective criteria. The company measured each employee’s productivity and profitability objectively, based on whether hours budgeted for particular jobs were met or exceeded. The employer also consulted a computer program that assessed each employee’s performance. As for the employer not considering positive performance reviews, the Eighth Circuit held that it was not required to consider them in making its RIF decision because it had many other relevant factors under consideration. Finally, the court dismissed the employees’ argument that the employer provided inconsistent rationales for the layoffs, where there was no evidence to support the claim. Indeed, the Court of Appeals found that the employer maintained consistently that the reason for the RIF was shifting client needs and an anticipated decrease in workload and profits.

Lesson Learned: Because reductions in an employer’s workforce often give rise to litigation, it’s important to establish legitimate, business-related reasons for the move in advance. Although using objective criteria provides the best defense against a discrimination claim, the Rahlf decision shows that subjective factors can also be relevant. Whatever your reasons for doing an RIF, identify them clearly and base them on documented facts in case the reduction leads to litigation. See the RIF Checklist and Report In HR That Works.

Article courtesy of Worklaw® Network firm Shawe Rosenthal (