Michael S. Powers

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Supreme Court Decides When the Clock Starts for Constructive Discharge Claims

The United States Supreme Court decided this week when the statute of limitations “clock” starts to run for workers claiming constructive discharge under Title VII.  In Green v Brennan, Postmaster General, the Court, by a decision of seven to one, held that the claim accrues, and thus the limitations period begins to run, from the time of the employee’s resignation.  By doing so the Court has resolved a circuit split amongst appellate courts regarding when the statute of limitations on a constructive discharge claim begins to run.  Some circuits had applied the rule ultimately adopted by the Supreme Court, while others had held that the claim accrued (and thus the statute of limitations began to run) at the time of the last discriminatory act.

Plaintiff Marvin Green was an African-American postal employee who had worked for the Postal Service for thirty-five years.  In 2008 Mr. Green applied for the vacant postmaster position in Boulder, Colorado.  When he did not get the position he alleged that the denial was due to his race, and he complained about this to his supervisor.  He alleges that after his complaint his relationship with the supervisor deteriorated.  In December 2009 he was alleged by the same supervisor to have intentionally delayed the mail, potentially exposing him to criminal charges.  He denies those allegations.  In December of 2009 Mr. Green reached a settlement agreement with the Postal Service under which he had the choice of either retiring or accepting a lower-paying position.  He resigned in February of 2010.

On March 22, 2010, forty-one days after his resignation, Green filed a charge with the EEOC alleging constructive discharge.  He eventually filed a lawsuit against the Postal Service.  The Postal Service argued that his charge was untimely due to the fact that public sector employees have only forty-five days in which to file a charge, contrasted with one hundred eighty days for private sector employees (or three hundred days if the EEOC has a reciprocity agreement with a state agency administering state non-discrimination laws (where applicable)).  The Defendant’s position was that the period of limitations should start to run on the date of the last discriminatory act (i.e., the settlement agreement) not the date of resignation.  Green argued that the appropriate date for accrual of his claim was the date of resignation.  The district sided with the defendant, applying the “last discriminatory act” rule, and dismissed the lawsuit.  On appeal, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that dismissal.  The U.S. Supreme Court took the case in order to resolve a circuit split as to whether a constructive discharge claim accrues (and the limitation period starts running) at the time of the last discriminatory act or at the time of resignation.

Ultimately the Supreme Court agreed with the Plaintiff, finding that the claim accrued only after resignation, reversing the lower courts’ decision.  The high court stated that constructive discharge claims arise when the employer discriminates to the point that the working situation becomes intolerable to the extent that a reasonable person would be compelled to resign.  Therefore the resignation is the crucial point in the analysis.  The court noted “[i]n this respect, a claim that an employer constructively discharged an employee is no different from a claim that an employer actually discharged an employee.”  The only dissent came from Justice Thomas, who alleged that the ruling would expand the constructive discharge doctrine.  The decision, while only impacting constructive discharge cases, does likely expand the limitations period in most instances for those claims.

The St. Louis employment attorneys at McMahon Berger have been representing employers across the country in labor and employment matters for nearly sixty years, including defense of wrongful discharge and other Title VII discrimination claims, and are available to discuss these issues and others.  As always, the foregoing is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice regarding any particular situation as every situation must be evaluated on its own facts. The choice of a lawyer is an important decision and should not be based solely on advertisements.

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