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Supreme Court Says Limitations Period for Discrimination Claims Runs Beginning on Date of Constructive Discharge

    Client Alerts
  • May 31, 2016

Title VII and related federal civil rights laws contain short administrative claims periods that often result in preclusion of actions filed after expiration of these dates. These exclusions lead to frequent litigation regarding when the period of limitations for filing discrimination and retaliation claims begins. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that for situations where an employee resigns due to a constructive discharge, the limitations period begins as of the date of notice of resignation, and not the earlier last date of any alleged discriminatory or retaliatory action.

Constructive discharge occurs when an employee quits based on work conditions that are deemed intolerable to a reasonable person. In some situations, the date of resignation may be some time after the last claimed discriminatory act took place. In Green v. Brennan, the plaintiff alleged that he was accused by his employer, the U.S. Postal Service, of criminal delays in delivering mail after he complained about being denied a promotion due to his race. The parties eventually agreed that the plaintiff would resign in return for the USPS dropping the criminal charges, but the notice of resignation occurred several months after the alleged retaliatory action took place. The plaintiff filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC, and the employer sought its dismissal as untimely.

The district court and the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the defendant, affirming dismissal of the claim as outside of the applicable limitations period. Those courts concluded that the period of limitations in employment discrimination claims runs from the last date of alleged discriminatory treatment, and not the day that the employee decides to resign.

In a 7-1 opinion, the Supreme Court reversed this decision, remanding the suit to district court. The Court stated that the period of limitations under Title VII and related laws begins running as of the date of constructive discharge: “resignation is part of the ‘complete and present cause of action’ in a constructive discharge claim, which comprises two basic elements: discriminatory conduct such that a reasonable employee would have felt compelled to resign and actual resignation.”  From a practical standpoint, employees subject to conduct constituting constructive discharge may not be in a position to resign for some time after the alleged conduct occurs.

In practice, this decision should have limited impact on employers. In most constructive discharge situations, the employee resigns shortly after the alleged conduct takes place, and the deadline for filing an EEOC charge does not come into play in ensuing litigation. However, there may be a few situations where an employee delays a considerable amount of time before resigning, significantly extending the usual limitations period. In those cases, the employer could still argue that the delay is evidence of a lack of grounds for constructive discharge.