Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a plaintiff-friendly decision resolving disagreements over the question of when a constructive discharge claim accrues. The lower courts didn’t agree on when the clock should start ticking on claims by employees that they were forced to quit, creating uncertainty for plaintiffs who faced the possibility that their claims would be barred by the statute of limitations if they didn’t sue soon enough.
In the case before the Court, Green v. Brennan, Marvin Green attempted to bring a claim of constructive discharge against his employer, the United States Postal Service (USPS), after he was denied a promotion (allegedly on the basis of his race) and told to resign or be demoted and relocated to another state at significantly lower pay. According to Mr. Green, these options were so intolerable that he was compelled to resign.
Before Mr. Green could sue his employer, however, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 required him to first exhaust all administrative remedies by bringing his complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission “within 45 days of the date of the matter alleged to be discriminatory or, in the case of personnel action, within 45 days of the effective date of the action."
The USPS argued that Mr. Green missed the deadline because he failed to alert the EEOC within 45 days of the alleged discriminatory act of the employer. The Colorado federal district court, and eventually the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, agreed with the USPS and found that Mr. Green’s claim was time-barred.
According to Law360, five other circuits have ruled that the clock starts when the employee provides notice of resignation, and not when the employer commits the last discriminatory act. Mr. Green asked the Supreme Court to adopt the reasoning of these courts and overturn the Tenth Circuit’s decision in his case, and he got exactly that.
Writing for the 7-1 majority, Justice Sotomayor said that the claims of wrongful discharge and constructive discharge share two common elements (discrimination and discharge); therefore, “[w]ith claims of either constructive discharge or actual discharge, the standard rule thus yields the same result: a limitations period should not begin to run until after the discharge itself.”
Justice Sotomayor also pointed out the difficulty of bringing an EEOC complaint before actually resigning from the position, which could make for some awkward water-cooler interactions. The Court also acknowledged that would-be plaintiffs cannot always resign their jobs immediately following discriminatory treatment. They may be unable to forego the income, or have other valid reasons to stay at their job—such as the committed teacher who wants to finish out the school year.
Finally, it is important to note that the statute of limitations begins to run at the point of notice of resignation.
As with claims of wrongful discharge, the clock will start running when the employee is notified—or gives notice of—termination, not necessarily the last day of work. Justice Sotomayor wrote: “Likewise, here, we hold that a constructive-discharge claim accrues—and the limitations period begins to run—when the employee gives notice of his resignation, not on the effective date of that resignation.”