On May 23, 2016, in a 7-1 decision authored by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the time period within which an employee must file a Title VII “constructive discharge” claim begins when the employee resigns due to the employer’s discriminatory actions.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, or from retaliating against their employees for opposing or seeking relief from such discrimination. However, before a federal employee can bring a Title VII action against his or her employer, certain conditions must be met. Pursuant to regulations promulgated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), one such condition requires the federal employee to “initiate contact” with the EEOC “within 45 days of the date of the matter alleged to be discriminatory.”
The Supreme Court case, Green v. Brennan, hinged on the meaning of the language “date of the matter alleged to be discriminatory” in a case where an employee is not fired, but “resigns in the face of intolerable discrimination—a ‘constructive’ discharge.” The petitioner in Green, an African-American man who worked for the U.S. Postal Service for 35 years, was passed over for a promotion in 2008. Believing himself to be the more qualified candidate, Green complained that he had been discriminated against on account of his race.
Green’s complaint soured his relationship with his supervisors at the Postal Service, who ultimately accused Green of the federal criminal offense of intentionally delaying the mail. After a brief investigation by the Postal Service’s Office of Inspector General, Green and the Postal Service entered into a settlement agreement on December 16, 2009. The agreement provided that the Postal Service would not pursue criminal charges in exchange for Green’s promise to leave his post. Although the settlement agreement gave Green the option of moving to another post (in a smaller community and for a substantially lower salary), he chose to retire. On February 9, 2010 (with an effective date of March 31), Green submitted his resignation to the Postal Service.
Green contacted the EEOC on March 22—41 days after submitting his notice of resignation on February 9, but 96 days after signing the December 16 settlement agreement. He claimed that he had been constructively discharged when the Postal Service threatened criminal charges against him in retaliation for his original complaint (i.e., being passed over for a promotion because of his race) and that by doing so, the Postal Service had, in effect, forced him to retire.
Noting the December 16 date of the settlement agreement, the Postal Service argued in a motion for summary judgment that Green’s report of constructive discharge was untimely because more than 45 days had passed since the “date of the matter alleged to be discriminatory.” The Federal District Court for the District of Colorado agreed with the Postal Service, as did the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.
In overturning the Tenth Circuit’s decision, and simultaneously resolving a split in opinions among the various circuit courts, the Supreme Court held that “the ‘matter alleged to be discriminatory’ in a constructive-discharge claim necessarily includes the employee’s resignation. . .” Green’s resignation, said the Court, “is not merely an inevitable consequence of the discrimination he suffered; it is an essential part of his constructive-discharge claim. That is, Green could not sue for constructive discharge until he actually resigned.” The Court also clarified, however, that the 45-day period begins at the time of the employee’s notice of resignation, and not the employee’s actual last day of work. For that reason, the Court remanded the case back to the Tenth Circuit for a determination as to exactly when Green submitted his notice of resignation.
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