Thursday, May 26, 2016

Constructive Discharges: Triggering the Limitation Period

On Monday, the Supreme Court held that the limitation period for constructive discharge claims begin after an employee gives notice of his or her resignation, not the effective date of the constructive discharge.  The controversy arose when Marvin Green, an employee of the United States Postal Service, complained that he was not promoted because he was black, while Green’s supervisors accused him of intentionally delaying the mail.  The Postal Service and Green entered into an agreement on December 16, 2009; the Postal Service agreed not to pursue criminal charges against Green, and Green agreed to either retire or to take a demotion in a remote area.  On February 9, 2010, Green submitted his resignation paperwork.  Green v. Brennan, No. 14-613, 2016 WL 2945236 (U.S. May 23, 2016).

Under relevant law, a plaintiff working or applying to work in the federal sector, alleging discrimination or retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, must initiate contact with an EEOC counselor within 45 days after the “matter alleged to be discriminatory.”  29 CFR § 1614.105(a)(1) (2015).  On March 22, 2010, 41 days after Green submitted his resignation, and 96 days after he signed the agreement with his employer, Green reported an unlawful constructive discharge to an EEOC counselor.  Green subsequently filed a lawsuit in federal district court, which dismissed the suit since Green did not made initial contact with an EEOC counselor within 45 days of the “matter alleged to be discriminatory.”  The Tenth Circuit agreed with the lower court’s finding, holding that the limitation period began to run when Green signed the agreement with the Postal Service on December 16th.  That court reasoned that the “matter” solely pertained to the discriminatory acts of the Postal Service, not Green's resignation.  The Supreme Court disagreed; holding that the “matter alleged to be discriminatory” in a constructive discharge claim is, in part, the resignation itself and therefore the limitation period would not begin until after the resignation.

The Supreme Court’s holding relied on the standard rule for limitation periods, which offered three justifications as to why resignations should be included in the limitation period.  
  1. The standard rule specifies that limitation periods begin to run “when the plaintiff has a complete and present cause of action.”  An employee will not have a complete and present cause of action for constructive discharge until he or she resigns, and therefore the limitation period cannot begin until that resignation.  
  2. It is reasonable to interpret that the “matter alleged to be discriminatory” would include the resignation that gave rise to the constructive discharge claim.  Though, the standard rule may be subject to exception if the text of the statute that creates the limitation period specifies otherwise, Title VII does not do so.  
  3. Applying the standard rule seeks to achieve the goals of Title VII.   A “limitations perio[d] should not commence to run so soon that it becomes difficult for a layman to invoke the protection of the civil rights statutes.” Delaware State College v. Ricks, 449 U.S. 250, 262, n. 16, 101 S.Ct. 498, 66 L.Ed.2d 431.  
Employers should take note that only federal employees and job applicants must initiate contact with an EEOC counselor within 45 days.  All other public and private sector employees must file their charge of discrimination with the EEOC within 180 days of the alleged discrimination.  However, if a state or local agency enforces a law that prohibits employment discrimination, the filing deadline is extended to 300 calendar days.  Age discrimination charges have a slightly different procedure; “the filing deadline is only extended to 300 days if there is a state law prohibiting age discrimination in employment and a state agency or authority enforcing that law. The deadline is not extended if only a local law prohibits age discrimination.”

Employers should also be reminded that an employee resigns on the day he or she gives their employer a notice of resignation.  Therefore the limitation period begins on the day of notice, not on the employee’s last day of work.  For more information, reach out to one of Ancel Glink’s experienced labor and employment attorneys here.