U.S. Supreme Court Clarifies Statute of Limitations for Constructive Discharge Claims

On May 23, 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Green v. Brennan, held that the statute of limitations for a constructive discharge claim begins to run when the employee gives notice of his or her resignation, not at the time of the employer’s last allegedly discriminatory act giving rise to the resignation. The “constructive discharge” doctrine refers to a situation in which an employer discriminates against an employee to the point that the employee’s working conditions become so intolerable that a reasonable person in the employee’s position would feel compelled to resign.

The Court’s decision in Green resolves a split in authority between federal appeals courts and provides greater certainty regarding when an employee’s constructive discharge claim accrues. Although the Green case arose in the context of a federal employee, its holding applies equally to public and private sector employment.

Factual Background

The plaintiff, Marvin Green, was a U.S. Postal Service (“USPS”) employee for 35 years. While serving as a postmaster in Englewood, CO, a Denver suburb, he applied and was passed over for a promotion to a postmaster position in Boulder, CO. In response, Green, who is African-American, filed a race discrimination claim, and subsequently a retaliation claim, with the USPS Equal Employment Opportunity Office.

In December 2009, Green’s supervisors accused him of intentionally delaying the mail – a criminal offense. On December 16, 2009, following an investigation of the charges,  Green and the USPS signed a settlement agreement, the meaning of which was disputed in the litigation that followed. In the agreement, the USPS agreed not to pursue criminal charges against Green in exchange for his agreement to leave his postmaster position in Englewood, CO. In Green’s view, the agreement gave him a choice – by March 31, 2010, he could either retire from the USPS or report for duty in Wamsutter, Wyoming, a position located 300 miles away at a considerably lower salary. Green opted to retire, submitting his retirement papers on February 9, 2010, effective at the end of March.

On March 22, 2010, 41 days after submitting his retirement papers and 96 days after signing the settlement agreement, Green contacted an EEO counselor and complained that the USPS had retaliated against him for his complaints of racial discrimination and constructively discharged him by forcing him to retire, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Before a federal employee may sue his or her employer under Title VII, the employee must first exhaust their administrative remedies by contacting an EEO counselor at their agency “within 45 days of the date of the matter alleged to be discriminatory.” (In contrast, a private sector employee initiates a Title VII claim by filing a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) within 180 days, or 300 days in some jurisdictions.)

Procedural History

Green filed suit against the USPS in the District of Colorado, alleging that he was constructively discharged in violation of Title VII. The USPS moved for summary judgment, arguing that Green’s claim was time-barred because he failed to contact an EEO counselor within 45 days after signing the December 2009 settlement agreement. The District Court granted the USPS’s motion for summary judgment. The 10th Circuit affirmed, holding that Green’s constructive discharge claim was untimely because the clock for filing the claim started on “the date of the matter alleged to be discriminatory” – which the Court interpreted to mean the date of the last discriminatory act by the USPS, not the date of Green’s resignation.

The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve a circuit split regarding whether the statute of limitations in a constructive discharge case begins to run when the employee resigns (the view of five circuits) or when the employer takes its last discriminatory action (the view of the 10th and two other circuits). This split had caused uncertainty for both employees filing constructive discharge claims and employers defending them, as the timeliness of the claim depended on the law of the circuit in which suit was filed.

The Supreme Court’s Decision

Writing for a 7-1 Court, Justice Sotomayor first interpreted the EEOC regulation that requires a federal employee alleging discrimination in violation of Title VII to exhaust his or her administrative remedies by initiating contact with an EEO counselor “within 45 days of the date of the matter alleged to be discriminatory.” Noting that the “matter alleged to be discriminatory” could be interpreted to include “all of the allegations underlying a claim of discrimination, including the employee’s resignation, or only to those allegations concerning the employer’s discriminatory conduct,” the Court found persuasive the “standard rule” for limitations periods. The “standard rule” provides that a “limitations period commences when the plaintiff has a complete and present cause of action.” Applying this rule, the Court held that in the context of a constructive discharge claim, the “matter alleged to be discriminatory” must necessarily include the employee’s resignation because the plaintiff’s cause of action for constructive discharge does not exist until the plaintiff actually resigns. The Court went on to explain that the contrary interpretation would serve to undermine Title VII’s remedial structure, forcing an employee to file a complaint prematurely to preserve his or her rights (i.e., after the employer’s allegedly discriminatory conduct, but potentially before resigning), and then amend the complaint post-resignation to allege constructive discharge.

After interpreting the meaning of “the matter alleged to be discriminatory,” the Court went on to analyze precisely what qualifies as an employee’s “resignation,” thereby triggering the accrual of a constructive discharge claim. On this point, the Court agreed with the position taken by both Green and the Government, that “an employee resigns when he gives his employer definite notice of his intent to resign.” In other words, if an employee gives two weeks’ notice of his intended departure, “the limitations period begins to run on the day he tells his employer, not his last day at work.”

On this point, the Government argued that Green resigned on December 16, 2009, when he signed the settlement agreement, and that his constructive discharge claim was therefore time-barred. Green, on the other hand, maintained that his resignation did not occur until February 9, 2010, when he submitted his retirement papers, and, thus, his constructive discharge claim was timely. Recognizing that the date of Green’s resignation was disputed and case determinative, the Court vacated the judgment of the 10th Circuit and remanded the case for further proceedings to decide that issue.

Conclusion

The Court’s decision in Green will potentially impact the timeliness of thousands of constructive discharge cases filed each year, likely resulting in fewer successful motions to dismiss on statute of limitations grounds. In addition, more plaintiffs may opt to delay the filing of an administrative charge until after giving notice of resignation, making it more difficult for employers to defend an underlying claim that may have arisen long before the plaintiff filed a complaint. By establishing a practical, bright-line rule for when a constructive discharge claim accrues, however, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision promotes predictability and uniformity in the resolution of constructive discharge claims across circuits.

For answers to any questions regarding this blog, please feel free to contact an attorney in the Gibbons Employment & Labor Law Department.

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