Human Resources News & Insights

Supreme Court gives workers a little more room to sue you

The Supreme Court’s latest ruling isn’t going to make a lot of employers happy. 

The High Court just made it easier for employees to sue, claiming they were constructively discharged.

Constructive discharge occurs when an employer makes a person’s working conditions so intolerable — via some underhanded actions, like harassment or discrimination — that the person felt compelled to resign.

Federal law says private sector employees must file a charge of harassment, discrimination or constructive discharge with the EEOC within 180 days from the day the illegal act took place if they want to press charges in federal court. The deadline is extended to 300 calendar days if a state or local agency enforces a law that prohibits employment discrimination or harassment on the same basis.

Federal employees have just 45 days to contact an Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) counselor to be able to file a charge.

The real issue

The question that was posed to the Supreme Court: In constructive discharge cases, what constitutes the last act of discrimination or harassment — i.e., when does the statute of limitations clock start running?

The High Court’s answer: The date the employee resigns (even if it’s not the person’s last day of work).

What happened?

The issue came up in a case in which former postal worker Marvin Green sued the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), claiming constructive discharge.

In late 2009, Green complained to USPS management that he’d been denied a promotion because he was African-American. From there, his relationship with the USPS entered a downward spiral that eventually led to his supervisors accusing him of deliberately delaying the mail (a federal offense).

Then, on Dec. 16, 2009, both parties signed an agreement in which the USPS agreed not to pursue criminal charges in exchange for Green either retiring or accepting a position in a remote location for far less pay. Green elected to retire and submitted his resignation on Feb. 9, 2010 (effective March 31).

On March 22, Green contacted an EEO counselor and alleged that he was constructively discharged. He then filed suit in federal district court, which dismissed his charges on the basis that it was untimely because he failed to contact an EEO counselor within 45 days of Dec. 16, the date he signed the agreement.

Green appealed, and the case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in Green’s favor when it came to the start of the 45-day limitations period.

It said the period begins on the date an employee resigns.

The reasoning

The court said in cases in which an employee claims to have been fired for discriminatory reasons, the matter alleged to be discriminatory includes the discharge itself. Therefore, the 45-day limitations period begins when the employee is discharged.

The justices applied that same line of thinking to constructive discharge cases — saying that the matter alleged to be discriminatory includes the employee’s resignation.

Two reasons it did this:

  • It said a resignation is part of the elements of a constructive discharge claim. So without a resignation, the claim can’t even exist, and
  • It said requiring that a complaint be filed before resignation occurs would ignore that an employee may not be in a position to leave his job immediately.

Far-reaching effect

While this case dealt with a federal employee’s obligation to report to an EEO counselor within 45 days, it indicated that lower courts could apply the same reasoning to the 180/300-day periods imposed upon private sector employees.

One could even surmise that the ruling could also apply to state anti-discrimination and anti-harassment laws as well.

Cite: Green v. Brennan (Postmaster General)

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