“I Quit” — Supreme Court Decides When Clock Starts on Constructive Discharge Claims

May 23 2016 - Discrimination - HRWatchdog

StopwatchToday, the United States Supreme Court decided when the time limit begins to run for filing a federal employment discrimination claim for constructive discharge and resolved a split among the federal circuits.

An employee who resigns in the face of intolerable discriminatory or harassing working conditions can bring a claim for wrongful termination, known as “constructive discharge.” Constructive discharge covers situations where the working conditions are so intolerable that a reasonable person in the employee’s situation would feel that he or she had no choice but to resign. A resignation in the face of such intolerable conditions is treated as being the same as an actual discharge.

The specific question before the Court was when does the filing period for a constructive discharge claim begin to run for federal employment discrimination claims: Is it when an employee resigns, as five federal circuit courts, including the Ninth Circuit, have held? Or is it at the time of an employer’s last allegedly discriminatory act giving rise to the resignation, as three other federal circuit courts have held?

The case involved a former U.S. Postal Service Employee, Marvin Green, who claimed that he was the victim of racial discrimination. In 2008, he was passed over for a promotion and complained it was due to race.

In December 2009, while his complaint was pending, the Postal Service notified Green that it was investigating him for criminal misconduct for intentionally delaying the mail — an investigation Green claims was retaliatory. On December 16, Green and the Postal Service signed an agreement where the Postal Service agreed not to pursue criminal charges in exchange for Green’s promise to resign or take a new job. Green chose to retire and submitted his resignation on February 9, effective March 31.

The Tenth Circuit held that Green’s claim was time-barred because the date Green signed the settlement agreement was the Postal Service’s last discriminatory act triggering the filing deadline that Green failed to meet.

In a 7-1 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court held that when an employee resigns in the face of intolerable discrimination, the resignation itself is part of the alleged discrimination. The time period for filing a constructive discharge claim “begins running only after the employee resigns.”  The Court also noted that this means the clock starts when the employee gives definite “notice” of his or her resignation, not the date the resignation is effective. For example, if the employee gives two weeks of notice, the clock starts to run on the day he tells his employer, not two weeks later on the employee’s last day of work.

The Court noted that it made no sense to force an employee to lodge a complaint before he can bring a claim for constructive discharge. Even if suffering intolerable conditions, an employee may have financial or other circumstances that force him or her to stay for a period of time.

The Court remanded the case to the Tenth Circuit to determine which date Green, in fact, gave notice — was it February 9, the date he submitted his resignation which would mean his case could go forward?  Or was it December 16, the date he signed the settlement agreement which would mean his claim is still time barred?

Gail Cecchettini Whaley, CalChamber Employment Law Counsel/Content

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