This term, which begins next Monday, the Supreme Court is slated to hear a case that could raise new obstacles for individuals who faced intolerable discrimination in the workplace that forced them to quit their jobs.
Green v. Donahoe (now listed as Green v. Brennan) asks the Court to decide whether, under Title VII, the clock for bringing a constructive discharge claim begins to run when an employee resigns or at the time of an employer’s last discriminatory act prior to the resignation.
A constructive discharge occurs when an individual’s work environment has become so intolerable that the worker has no real choice other than quitting. She hasn’t been officially terminated, but leaving her job is a reasonable response to extreme and unchanging hostility or harassment at the workplace.
What Happened to Marvin Green?
Marvin Green, a postmaster for the Postal Service, filed a formal charge with the Post Office’s Equal Employment Opportunity Office when he suspected that he was passed over for a promotion because of his race. Once he filed his complaint though, he alleges that his situation at work only got worse. According to his complaint, Mr. Green’s supervisors threatened him with criminal prosecution for a baseless charge, and suspended him without pay and without any prior notice. He eventually resigned in February 2010, effective the first day of March 2010, and filed his constructive discharge suit forty-one days later. Federal employees like Mr. Green must file discrimination or retaliation complaints within 45 days of experiencing the challenged discrimination or retaliation.
The Outcome of this Case Will Significantly Impact Sex Discrimination Cases
If the time for filing a claim is considered to have begun when he resigned, then Mr. Green’s claim is timely and his case can move forward. But if the Court decides that the clock for filing a constructive discharge claim began at the time of the employer’s last discriminatory act rather than the date of his constructive discharge, Mr. Green will be time-barred from seeking justice in the courts for the wrongs he suffered at work.
As important as this case is to Mr. Green, its significance reaches far beyond him. The majority of constructive discharge claims are brought in sex discrimination cases, frequently in cases challenging hostile environment sexual harassment, meaning that this case is particularly important for women workers. Individuals seeking to challenge ongoing, severe discrimination or harassment that has forced them off the job should not be faced with a clock that started running on their constructive discharge claim before they have even resigned.
The National Women’s Law Center coauthored a brief with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund arguing that the employee’s date of resignation is the appropriate moment for starting the clock for the time limitation on filing lawsuits. After all, how exactly is an employee to know what constitutes the “last allegedly discriminatory act giving rise to the resignation” until the employee actually resigns? To begin counting against the time for filing a suit at “the last discriminatory act” would therefore prevent many employees from seeking justice for discrimination faced in the workplace.