Time Limit for Constructive Discharge Claims Starts with Resignation

October 30, 2016

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, an employee can file suit against his employer for damages resulting from his decision to resign because of an intolerable work environment created by discrimination. Before the employee can sue, however, he must pursue administrative remedies within a certain period of time, depending on the nature of the employer. In a recent case, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the deadline to pursue administrative remedies is based on the date of the employee’s resignation, not the date of the discriminatory act that created the intolerable work environment. 

How Do Title VII Claims Work?

Title VII prohibits employers from discriminating against employees or potential employees on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Title VII also prohibits employers from retaliating against employees for opposing or seeking relief from discrimination. Before an employee can file suit against an employer under Title VII, he must exhaust his administrative remedies. For an employee to exhaust his administrative remedies, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) requires him to, among other things, file a complaint with an equal employment opportunity (EEO) counselor.

Federal employees must “initiate contact” with an EEO counselor at their agency “within 45 days of the date of the matter alleged to be discriminatory.” Private-sector employees must file a charge with the EEOC within 180 or 300 days “after the alleged unlawful employment practice occurred.” In Wisconsin, the 300-day limit applies. The requirements create a short statute of limitations for Title VII claims.

Supreme Court Takes a Case 

In Green v. Brennan, the Supreme Court addressed when the 45-day limitation period for a constructive discharge claim brought by a federal employee under Title VII begins to run.

Title VII permits claims in which the employee alleges discriminatory conduct made the workplace so intolerable that he resigned from his position. This is known as a constructive discharge claim. It has two elements: (1) The employee was discriminated against by his employer to the point where a reasonable person in his position would have felt compelled to resign and (2) he actually resigned. In Green, the Court addressed whether the 45-day limit begins to run when the employer commits discriminatory acts or when the employee resigns.

Background 

Marvin Green, an African American, was an employee of the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) for 35 years. While working as the postmaster in Englewood, Colorado, he applied for the vacant postmaster position in Boulder. After the Boulder position was given to another candidate, Green complained that he had been denied the job because of his race. The complaint severely damaged his relationship with his supervisors.

Subsequently, two of Green’s supervisors accused him of intentionally delaying the mail, which is a criminal offense. Green was interviewed by agents from the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), who concluded that further investigation was not warranted. Nevertheless, Green’s supervisors continued to claim that the OIG was actively investigating the matter and that criminal charges remained a possibility. Later, Green and the USPS executed an agreement under which he would leave his post in Englewood in exchange for the USPS not pursuing criminal charges. Additionally, the agreement required him to resign or accept a reassignment to Wamsutter, Wyoming, with a substantial reduction in salary.

Faced with the choice of retiring or moving almost 300 miles from Englewood, a Denver suburb, to Wamsutter (population: 451), Green submitted his resignation. He contacted an EEO counselor to report unlawful constructive discharge 41 days after he resigned and 96 days after he signed the agreement. He alleged that in retaliation for his race discrimination complaint, his supervisors threatened to bring criminal charges against him and negotiated the agreement, effectively forcing him to resign.

Green eventually brought suit in federal district court, alleging constructive discharge. The district court dismissed his claim on the grounds that he failed to file a complaint with the EEO counselor within 45 days of the “matter alleged to be discriminatory.” On appeal, the 10th Circuit upheld the dismissal, explaining that the 45- day period began running on the date of the USPS’s last discriminatory act—the resignation agreement. Green asked the Supreme Court to consider the case.

Supreme Court’s Decision

The Supreme Court reversed, finding that the 45- day period began running when Green resigned. The Court began by explaining that the phrase “matter alleged to be discriminatory” is ambiguous because it could reasonably be interpreted to include a forced resignation or the employer’s underlying discriminatory acts. Accordingly, the Court turned to the standard rule for statutes of limitations. Under the standard rule, a statute of limitations begins to run when the plaintiff has “a complete and present” claim. A claim becomes “complete and present” when the plaintiff “can file suit and obtain relief.”

Applying the standard rule to constructive discharge claims under Title VII, the Court found that an employee cannot file suit to obtain relief until after he resigns. As discussed above, the second element of a constructive discharge claim is that the employee actually resign. Consequently, the resignation is part of the “matter alleged to be discriminatory,” and the 45-day period begins to run when the employee resigns.

The Court further expounded that practical considerations support the 45-day period starting at the employee’s resignation. The decision to resign is difficult, requiring the employee to lose his source of income while reentering the job market. Moreover, some employees may feel duty-bound to endure to a certain date—e.g., a teacher waiting until the end of the school year to resign. By contrast, starting the 45-day period on the date of the discriminatory act (for example, a downgrade in working conditions or pay) asks the employee to make an impulsive decision to resign in order to protect his rights under Title VII. The Court observed that the limitations period “should not commence to run so soon that it becomes difficult for a layman to invoke the protection of the civil rights statutes.” Green v. Brennan, 136 S.Ct. 1769, 195 L.Ed.2d 44 (2016).

Bottom Line 

Although Green involved a federal employee, the Court’s decision is not limited to federal employers. Rather, it clarifies the limitations period for all constructive discharge claims under Title VII, regardless of the employer. Thus, Wisconsin employers should be aware that statutory time limitations could begin running well after a discriminatory act. Even if an employee does not file a discrimination charge for several months after an act that is alleged to be discriminatory, the employer should know that a constructive discharge lawsuit is still possible.

For more information about "Time Limit for Constructive Discharge Claims Starts with Resignation," contact Jeremy R. Lange at jlange@axley.com or 608.283.6728.