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Supreme Court sides with worker on constructive discharge case

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The clock starts ticking on how long a worker has to file a complaint under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when he resigns, not when the discriminatory action occurred, said the U.S. Supreme Court in a Monday ruling.

Marvin Green, an African-American man who worked for the U.S. Postal Service for 35 years, was passed over for a promotion to the vacant postmaster position in Boulder, Colorado, in 2008, according to the court's 7-1 ruling in Green v. Brennan, Postmaster General. Shortly after, he complained he was denied the promotion because of his race.

“Green's relations with his supervisor crumbled following his complaint,” with tension peaking in December 2009 when two of his supervisors accused Mr. Green of intentionally delaying the mail, which is a criminal offense.

On Dec. 16, 2009, Mr. Green and the Postal Service reached an agreement under which he agreed to either retire or accept a position at a salary considerably lower than he had had been earning. Mr. Green submitted his resignation on Feb. 9, 2010.

On March 22 of that year, 41 days after submitting his resignation but 96 days after signing the settlement agreement, Mr. Greene contacted a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission counselor to report an unlawful constructive discharge.

He eventually filed suit against the Postal Service in U.S. District Court in Denver. The Postal Service moved for summary judgment dismissing the case, arguing the 45 days that Mr. Green had as a federal employee to file a complaint started upon the signing of the settlement agreement, not his resignation. The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver subsequently affirmed the lower court's ruling.

The Supreme Court decided to hear the case because of a circuit split on this issue, according to the ruling, and held that the statute of limitations began with Mr. Green's resignation, not the signing of the settlement agreement.

A constructive discharge claim “accrues only after an employee resigns,” said the ruling. “The constructive-discharge doctrine contemplates a situation in which an employer discriminates against an employee to the point that 'working conditions become so intolerable that a reasonable person in the employee's position would have felt compelled to resign,' ” said the court, citing an earlier ruling.

“In this respect, a claim that an employer constructively discharged an employee is no different from a claim that an employer actually discharged an employee,” and the statute of limitations begins with the resignation, just as it does when the worker is fired, said the court, in overturning the appellate court ruling and remanding the case for further proceedings.

Justice Clarence Thomas issued a dissenting opinion in the case, stating that the majority ruling “expands the constructive-discharge doctrine.”

Brian D. Netter, a partner with Mayer Brown L.L.P. in Washington, noted that while federal employees have 45 days to file a complaint, employees in the private sector have 180 days, or up to 300 days if they have also filed a state claim.

The ruling “doesn't change the standard for what constitutes constructive discharge,” he said. “It only affects when the employee has to have made that first complaint.”

There are relatively few times when this is a significant issue, although the fact there was a circuit court split on the issues is an indication it may occur more times than would have been expected, he said.