Supreme Court Sets Accrual Date For Federal Employee Constructive Discharge Claims
On May 23, 2016, the United States Supreme Court issued its opinion in Green v. Brennan, 578 U.S. ___ (2016), settling a split amongst the Circuit Courts and establishing the date from which the statute of limitations begins to run for a federal employee’s claim of constructive discharge under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
Plaintiff Marvin Green, an African-American, worked for the Postal Service for approximately 35 years. In 2008, he applied for and was denied a promotion to a vacant postmaster position. Soon after, Green filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), alleging that he was denied the promotion because of his race. Over the next year, Green’s relationship with his employer deteriorated. Green filed additional informal complaints with the EEOC alleging retaliation and unfair treatment.
On December 11, 2009, the Postal Service’s Office of Inspector General (“OIG”) initiated an investigation regarding allegations that Green had intentionally delayed the mail, a criminal offense. Green was thereafter suspended from duty pending the investigation.
On December 16, 2009, Green signed a settlement agreement with the Postal Service, whereby Green agreed to retire by March 31, 2010, and the Postal Service agreed not to pursue criminal charges. Green submitted his retirement papers on February 9, 2010, and his retirement was effective March 31, 2010. On March 22, 2010 (41 days after resigning and 96 days after signing the agreement), Green filed an EEOC complaint in which he alleged that he had been constructively discharged by being forced to retire in retaliation for prior EEO activity. He later filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado.
The District Court granted summary judgment to the Postal Service, holding that Title VII regulations required Green, a federal employee, to contact the EEOC within 45 days of the “matter alleged to be discriminatory,” and Green failed to do so. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, finding that the 45-day limitations period began to run on December 16, 2009, the date the Postal Service forced Green to choose retirement. Green appealed, and the Supreme Court granted review.
The Court first laid out the standard rule for limitations periods—the limitations period ordinarily commences when the plaintiff has “a complete and present cause of action,” and a cause of action is not “complete and present” until the plaintiff can file suit and obtain relief. In the absence of statutory text to the contrary, the Court will follow this standard rule.
Next, the Court looked at when a plaintiff can file suit on a constructive discharge claim. A claim of constructive discharge has two elements: (1) the employee was discriminated against by his employer to the point where a reasonable person would have felt compelled to resign; and (2) that the employee did, in fact, resign. Consequently, a constructive discharge claim cannot be brought prior to resignation. To start the clock prior to actual resignation, according to the Court, would lead to impractical results such as the time period for bringing a constructive discharge complaint expiring before the employee resigns and the cause of action accrues.
The Court rejected the concern raised in Justice Thomas’ dissenting opinion that an employee would intentionally continue to work in an intolerable environment to extend the constructive discharge limitations period. Rather, the Court found that plaintiffs would not delay resignation because that would only serve to weaken their causation claims—the longer an employee chooses to stay, the less “intolerable” the environment will appear.
Finally, the Court examined when precisely an employee “resigns.” The Court held 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. The Court remanded the case to the lower court to make the factual determination of when Green gave notice of his resignation.
With this opinion, the Court has resolved the discrepancy among the Circuit Courts and conclusively established the date from which a cause of action for constructive discharge accrues. Although this case dealt with the 45-day limitations period for federal employees to file a constructive discharge claim, the reasoning behind the decision can be applied to private sector employees’ constructive discharge claims (the corresponding statute for private-sector Title VII plaintiffs requires a charge to be filed within 180 or 300 days “after the alleged unlawful employment practice occurred,” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e–5(e)(1)).
For employers in jurisdictions (such as the Tenth Circuit) that had previously started the clock as of the date of the employer’s last discriminatory act, this means that the limitations period for constructive discharge claims has effectively been lengthened. Conversely, in the Eighth Circuit and other jurisdictions, the Court’s ruling could prove advantageous to employers who can now measure the limitations period from the day the employee gives notice of his intent to resign rather than the last day of employment.
It’s also important to note that Green v. Brennan does not affect the deadline for filing a claim regarding the underlying workplace discrimination. “The 45-day limitations period (for federal employees) begins running on any separate underlying claim of discrimination when that claim accrues, regardless of whether the plaintiff eventually claims constructive discharge.” Employers should continue to critically examine the facts of each case to determine if they have a viable defense based on untimely filing.
Leigh C. Campbell