Tuesday, May 24, 2016

#SCOTUS extends time limits for constructive discharge claims

Yesterday, in Green v. Brennan [pdf] (background here), the Supreme Court considered when the statute of limitations begins to run for a constructive discharge claim—when the employee resigns or at the time of an employer’s last allegedly discriminatory act allegedly causing the resignation.

For the uninitiated, a constructive discharge is when an employer makes ones working conditions so intolerable that a reasonable person under such circumstances would have felt compelled to resign. It is not an independently unlawful act, and must be tied to some underlying illegal conduct (i.e., unlawful discrimination or harassment) to support a claim. Thus, if the misconduct is alleged to have violated Title VII, and if the employee resigns in the face of such circumstances, Title VII treats that resignation as tantamount to an actual discharge.

In Green, the Court held that the statute of limitations for a constructive discharge claim begins to run when the employee resigns:
We address here when the limitations period begins to run for an employee who was not fired, but resigns in the face of intolerable discrimination—a “constructive” discharge. We hold that, in such circumstances, the “matter alleged to be discriminatory” includes the employee’s resignation, and that the … clock for a constructive discharge begins running only after the employee resigns. 
The Court reached this conclusion for four reasons:

  1. The resignation is part of the elements of a constructive discharge claim, and without the actual resignation, no such claim even exists.
  2. Nothing in Title VII suggests to the contrary.
  3. The contrary rule (starting the clock ticking before an employee can actually file suit) would impede Title VII’s remedial purpose by requiring an employee to file a complaint after an employer’s discriminatory conduct, and then also requiring an employee to later amend that to allege constructive discharge after resigning.
  4. Requiring that an employee file a complaint before resigning ignores that an employee may not be in a position to leave his job immediately.

While I can’t necessarily argue with the Court’s logic, this case does have has real implications for employers. An employee only has 300 days to file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC, which serves as the prerequisite to the filing of a later lawsuit in federal court. This decision provides employees the maximum amount of time to file preserve their rights and file with the EEOC. One would assume this rule would also apply under state law, which, in Ohio, gives employees a whopping six years(!) (for now) to file a discrimination lawsuit.