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Fourth Circuit Affirms High Standard for Constructive Discharge

    Client Alerts
  • October 14, 2022

On October 4, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina) affirmed a lower court’s grant of summary judgment to an employer, in part, based on the former employee’s inability to show that she was constructively discharged.

In Lee v. Belvac Production Machinery, Inc., the plaintiff was a former employee who filed a complaint against her former employer, alleging that she was paid less because she was a woman and that her working conditions were so intolerable that she had to resign. She began her employment with the company in 2010 as its accounting manager and was eventually promoted to controller.

The plaintiff first complained about her alleged pay disparity in February 2017, claiming that the previous male controller had earned a significantly higher salary. She was subsequently given a 7.5% raise but complained about her pay again in November 2017. A month later, she filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charge alleging gender-based pay discrimination.

Shortly thereafter, the plaintiff took leave pursuant to the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). When she returned from her leave, she claimed that she was not compensated properly in conjunction with her leave, that her manager was not meeting with her to discuss work matters, and that there was a general hostility that she felt from her supervisor and other male coworkers. The plaintiff claimed that the denial of her leave pay and the impression that her employer had a glass ceiling for women in executive roles created considerable stress for her, to the point where she felt compelled to resign from the company.

In order to demonstrate constructive discharge, a plaintiff must be able to show two things. First, that her working conditions became so intolerable that a reasonable person in the employee’s position would have felt compelled to resign. Second, the employee must actually resign because of those conditions. The Fourth Circuit made clear that the intolerability requirement is not established by merely showing “that a reasonable person, confronted with the same choices as the employee, would have viewed resignation as the wisest or best decision, or even that the employee subjectively felt compelled to resign.” Instead, “intolerability is assessed by the objective standard of whether a reasonable person in the employee’s position would have felt compelled to resign—that is, whether she would have had no choice but to resign.” Unequivocally, a difficult or unpleasant working condition or denial of management positions, without more, is not enough to meet this high bar. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of this claim.

This case reaffirms the high bar that former employees have to meet when attempting to claim that they were constructively discharged. Absent this showing, an employee who quits may have a difficult time proving damages from any alleged legal violations that existed during employment.