June 17, 2014 Articles

When Can an Employee Quit and Still Sue for Wrongful Discharge?

The constructive-discharge doctrine has been a boon to employees, helping to keep employers honest. But it is not a panacea.

By R. Scott Oswald and Nicholas Woodfield – June 17, 2014

In the at-will employment context, an employee is ordinarily held to his or her decision to resign. But what if the employer, seeking to skirt liability for discharging the employee for an unlawful reason, prods and goads the employee along the path to resignation? In the 1930s, the National Labor Relations Board was faced with employers coercing resignations from employees to avoid liability under the National Labor Relations Act. In response, it created the constructive-discharge doctrine. That is, the employer did not issue the employee a discharge, but the working conditions deteriorated such that it became as if there had been a discharge.

Since then, state and federal courts have recognized that employers used similar arguments when faced with liability under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, other employment statutes, and various state torts for wrongful discharge. These courts adopted the constructive-discharge doctrine as an element of proof in place of actual discharge.

In 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Pennsylvania State Police v. Suders, explained that the constructive-discharge doctrine referring to “an employee’s reasonable decision to resign because of unendurable conditions is assimilated to a formal discharge for remedial purposes.” It noted that the question to be answered is: Did working conditions become so intolerable that a reasonable person in the employee’s position would have felt compelled to resign?

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