SCOTUS Sides with Employee on Timeliness of Constructive Discharge Filings

Recently the Supreme Court broke new ground in the area of constructive discharge. In Green v. Postmaster General, a 7-1 opinion written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the Court ruled that the filing period for a federal employee’s constructive discharge claim begins to run when an employee resigns as a result of discrimination, rather than at the time of the employer’s last discriminatory act.

Marvin Green, the plaintiff in the case, worked for the U.S. Postal Service for 35 years. In 2008, he complained to his supervisors that he believed that he was denied a promotion on the basis of his race. In 2009, his supervisors accused him of intentionally delaying the mail, which began an investigation of Mr. Green by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG).

After investigation, the OIG concluded that the charge against Green was unwarranted. Green’s supervisor did not tell him that the investigation had cleared him of all wrongdoing, but instead told him that OIG “is all over this.” Green was subsequently placed on off-duty status and signed an agreement on December 16, 2009 that in exchange for no criminal charges, he would retire by March 31, 2010 or accept a new position with a drastically lower salary. Green chose to resign effective March 31, 2010 on February 9, 2010.

On March 22, 2010, 41 days after he submitted his resignation and 96 days after he signed the settlement agreement, Green contacted an Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) counselor. Federal government employees challenging actions as discriminatory or retaliatory under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act must contact an EOO counselor “within 45 days of the date of the matter alleged to be discriminatory.” (Private sector employees bringing claims under Title VII have different time frames for filing complaints with the EEOC or local or state anti-discrimination agencies, generally 180 or 300 days from the unlawful action.)

Green filed suit for retaliation and discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act with the Federal District Court for the District of Colorado, claiming that his suit was timely because he had complained within 45 days of his constructive discharge. A constructive discharge occurs when an employee resigns because they feel they have no other choice given their employer’s discriminatory or retaliatory conduct. While less common than a straightforward termination, these cases can arise when an employee faces workplace hostility and treatment. An employee alleging a constructive discharge must show that the working conditions were so intolerable that a reasonable person would have felt compelled to resign.

After Green filed his case, the government moved for summary judgment on the basis that Green had not made timely contact with an EEO counselor. The government argued that the 45 day filing period began when Green signed the settlement agreement, which would have made Green 51 days late in making contact with the EEO counselor. The district court granted the motion for summary judgment and the Tenth Circuit affirmed.

The Supreme Court granted cert, and ultimately overturned the Tenth Circuit’s affirmation of the government’s motion for summary judgement. Justice Sotomayor wrote in her opinion that the 45 day filing clock starts when a plaintiff has a cause of action, and Green did not have a complete cause of action until his resignation. Therefore, the 45 day filing period did not start until he submitted his resignation letter on February 9, 2010.

The Court provided three reasons for its decision: (1) a resignation is a necessary component of a claim for constructive discharge; (2) nothing in the governing regulations compels a different rule; and (3) as a practical matter, this rule makes administration of the law simpler and fairer. Looking specifically at the text of the regulation which requires a federal employee to contact an EEO counselor before going to court, the Court explained that the “standard rule” in establishing when a limitations period begins to run is when a plaintiff has a “complete and present cause of action.”  For constructive-discharge claims, the Court concluded, this happens only once the employee has resigned – because until then, the employee has not actually been discharged.

The Court’s decision in Green offers clarity to a previously murky area of the law regarding constructive discharge filings for federal employees. Employees facing constructive discharge will now benefit from this bright-line rule that makes it easier for them to file a timely complaint.

At Correia & Puth, PLLC, our experienced attorneys represent both private and federal sector employees in constructive discharge claims. If you have been subject to constructive discharge because of discrimination, retaliation, harassment, or denial of a reasonable accommodation for a disability, contact us and we will fight for your rights in every step of the EEO process.