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Supreme Court ruling on timing of litigation could open employers to lawsuits

Supreme Court ruling on timing of litigation could open employers to lawsuits

A U.S. Supreme Court decision that establishes a “bright line” ruling as to when workers must file a complaint under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 could pose problems for employers by significantly increasing the period when the threat of litigation hangs over their heads, says an expert.

The U.S. Supreme Court's ruling last week in Green v. Brennan, Postmaster General, held that the statute of limitations for filing a complaint begins with the employee's resignation and not with “the matter alleged to be discriminatory.”

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 ruling. 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, said the ruling.

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 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.

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.”

Federal employees have 45 days to file a complaint, while employees in the private sector have 180 days, or up to 300 days for those in states that do not have fair employment practices agencies.

“Constructive discharge claims are becoming more and more prevalent,” said Melody Rayl, of counsel with Fisher & Phillips L.L.P. in Kansas City, Missouri.

This ruling “opens up the door” for employees to resign several months after their discrimination complaint has been resolved and “still be able to file an administrative charge of discrimination and have that filing be timely,” she said.

“An employer can no longer feel that the issue has been put to rest,” Ms. Rayl said.

However, Brian D. Netter, a partner with Mayer Brown L.L.P. in Washington, said the ruling “doesn't change the standard for what constitutes constructive discharge.”

There are “relatively few cases” where 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.