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Have You Been Forced Off the Job? What You Need to Know about 'Constructive Discharge'

Schwartz Perry & Heller LLP

Have You Been Forced Off the Job? What You Need to Know about ‘Constructive Discharge’

Why it’s important to seek legal counsel quickly

Imagine this scenario: You believe that you’re being subjected to unlawful discriminatory behavior or practices at work. You complain. The next thing you know, you’re being accused of something you didn’t do, or you’re severely reprimanded for a minor infraction. Not long after that, your duties are changed to less-desirable tasks, you get transferred to a location with an unreasonable commute, or your salary is cut.

Finally, things get so bad that you feel you have to quit. The question is, can you still sue your employer even though you weren’t fired?

Many employees may be surprised to find that federal law offers some protection from constructive discharge. That is, when an employer makes working conditions so intolerable that a reasonable person would not be able to stay, the law may treat the resignation the same way it would an involuntary termination. These situations often involve discrimination, harassment, or unsafe working conditions.

Just recently, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that gives employees a little more leeway in how constructive discharge cases are handled.

Let’s look at what happened in this case and then talk about what it might mean to you.

Intolerable working conditions

Marvin Green worked for the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) for 35 years. When the position of postmaster became vacant in a nearby city, Green applied. He didn’t get the job.

Green complained to his supervisors that he was passed over because he was African American.

Not long after that, Green’s supervisors accused him of delaying the mail, which is a criminal offense. Green denied the accusation but his supervisors would not back down.

Finally, the USPS offered Green a settlement agreement. The terms were that Green would immediately give up his position and receive paid leave until a specified date. After that he could accept a position at significantly lower pay in a location about 300 miles away, or he could retire. If Green agreed to the settlement, the USPS would not pursue criminal charges against him.

Green signed the agreement and went out on leave. He submitted his formal resignation several weeks later.

However, Green was stung by what had happened. He filed a formal complaint with an Equal Employment Opportunity counselor that he had been subjected to unlawful constructive discharge.

The USPS asked for the case to be thrown out. It alleged that Green’s complaint was outside of the statute of limitations. It argued that because Green was a federal employee, he had to file his complaint within 45 days of signing the settlement agreement. Green had made his complaint 96 days after signing the settlement agreement, but only 41 days after submitting his resignation.

Initially, a state court sided with the USPS. Green’s attorneys appealed. The case eventually made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The court ruled against the USPS. In the majority opinion, the justices stated that in an involuntary termination, the statute of limitations begins when the employee is fired. Treating a constructive discharge case in a similar manner would mean that the statute of limitations should begin when the worker formally resigns.

(The case discussed here is Green v. Brennan, Postmaster General.)

What it means to you

It’s important to note that the statutes of limitations are different for private-sector employees. Statutes of limitations may also be affected by whether or not employees have filed complaints with their states.

Because these issues can be extremely complicated, it’s wise to seek legal advice as soon as possible if you feel that you’ve been unlawfully forced off the job. Not only will that help ensure that you’re within any applicable federal or state statutes of limitations, you’ll also be in a better position to recall events that may help build your case.

Call or email us today to discuss your unique situation.

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