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The Supreme Court of the United States finds that the limitations period for a constructive-discharge claim, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, commences upon an employee’s notice of intent to resign

Marvin Green v. Megan J. Brennan, Postmaster General
No. 14-613 (May 23, 2016) Supreme Court of the United States

by Marie Claire Langlois, Summer Associate
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (www.semmes.com)

Available at: http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/15pdf/14-613_l5gm.pdf

In 2008, Mr. Marvin Green, postmaster for United States Postal Service (“USPS”) Englewood, Colorado office and USPS employee of 35 years, applied for a promotion to the vacant postmaster position in Boulder, Colorado. When denied such promotion, Green complained that he was passed-over because of his race. Over the next year, Green’s cordial relationships with his supervisors dissipated, ultimately resulting in an event on December 11, 2009, where Green was accused of intentionally delaying the mail—a criminal offense.

USPS’s Office of the Inspector General (“OIG”) investigated the charge, including an interview with Green. Although the OIG found that no further investigation was warranted, Green’s supervisors communicated that the investigation remained open, and on December 16, 2009, Green and the USPS entered into an agreement (“the agreement.”) Under the agreement, USPS promised not to pursue criminal charges if Green left his post in Englewood, along with the required stipulation that Green either retire or report for duty at a considerably lower wage in isolated Wamsutter, Wyoming. Green submitted his resignation paperwork on February 9, 2010, effective March 31st.

On March 22, 2010, Green contacted an Equal Employment Opportunity (“EEO”) counselor to report his experience resulting in constructive discharge. In a subsequent lawsuit, filed in the Federal District Court of the District of Colorado, Green alleged that the agreement was retaliation for his original complaint, and consequently, the agreement forced his resignation in violation of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of USPS, finding that Green did not commence timely contact with the EEO counselor, barring his case under the limitations period. The Tenth Circuit affirmed, and the Supreme Court granted certiorari.

A federal civil servant can sue his employer in the Federal Circuit under Title VII only after exhausting administrative remedies, a process which, among other things, requires consultation of an EEO counselor within 45 days of the “matter alleged to be discriminatory.” 29 CFR §1614.105(a)(1). Green contacted the EEO counselor 96 days after signing the agreement and 41 says after submitting his resignation paperwork. The question in front of the Court was whether the agreement or the resignation paperwork constituted the “matter alleged to be discriminatory,” thus, triggering the limitations period.

Justice Sotomayor, in a 7-1 opinion, addressed the court, first by attempting to define “matter alleged to be discriminatory.” Finding the expressed text in §1614.105 to be nugatory, Justice Sotomayor turned to the “standard rule” for limitations periods. This rule states that limitations periods do not commence until the Plaintiff has a complete and present cause of action, or in other words, when the Plaintiff can file suit and obtain relief. See Graham County Soil & Water Conservation Dist. V. United states ex rel. Wilson 545 U.D. 409, 418 (2005); see also Bay Area Laundry and Dry Cleaning Pension Trust Fund v. Ferbar Corp. of Cal., 522 U.S. 192, 201 (1997).

Constructive-discharge occurs when an employer discriminates against an employee to the point where his “working conditions become so intolerable that a reasonable person in the employee’s position would have felt compelled to resign.” Pennsylvania State Police v. Suders, 542 U.S. 129, 141 (2004). Because this definition contains two basic elements, (1) conditions under which an objective person would have resigned, and 2) an actual resignation by the employee, the court found that no individual can have a “complete and present cause of action” for a constructive-discharge claim, until there is an actual resignation. Commencement of the limitations period before resignation would do little to further the ultimate goals of the legislation, primarily because pursuing a constructive-discharge claim would be premature.

Justice Thomas found great issue with this interpretation, claiming that the majority opinion plainly ignores the direct language of the regulation. In his dissent, he specifically advocated that a “matter alleged to be discriminatory” could only be established by the employer’s behavior. Resignation consequential of an employer’s discriminatory actions may expand the Plaintiff’s remedial actions, but do not constitute the discriminatory action itself. See Suders, 542 U.S. at 141 (2004).

The majority opinion addressed this contention by asserting the inaccuracy of the dissent’s interpretation of Suders, that constructive-discharge is not a basis for the claim itself. “To the contrary, [Suders] expressly held that constructive discharge is a claim distinct from the underlying discriminatory act.” In concluding, once again, that resignation is an essential part of every constructive-discharge claim, Justice Sotomayor confidently predicated the need for resignation prior to commencing the limitations period. The Court ultimately remanded the case in order to resolve a factual dispute regarding when exactly Green gave notice of his intent to resign.


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