53 RI Bar J., No. 4, Pg. 11 (January/February 2005). U.S. Supreme Court on Constructive Discharge: A Little Bad News and a Lot of Good News for Employers.

AuthorJay S. Goodman, Esq.

Rhode Island Bar Journal

Volume 53.

53 RI Bar J., No. 4, Pg. 11 (January/February 2005).

U.S. Supreme Court on Constructive Discharge: A Little Bad News and a Lot of Good News for Employers

January/February 2005pg. 11U.S. Supreme Court on Constructive Discharge: A Little Bad News and a Lot of Good News for EmployersJay S. Goodman, Esq.Jay S. Goodman is Professor of Political Science at Wheaton College, Norton, MA and maintains a small law and lobbying practice in Providence.

Constructive Discharge is the ultimate employer legal nightmare. In a constructive discharge claim, the employee alleges that detrimental action was taken in the workplace, changing his or her job conditions so that he or she could no longer continue to work. So the employee departs. If the requirements of the legal claim are met, constructive discharge becomes the legal equivalent of an unfair termination, and damages, including back, and perhaps even future wages land on the table.

For this severe set of results, the triggering work change must be severe. There are no Rhode Island cases on point, but the United States District Court for Rhode Island did analyze constructive discharge in Marley v. United Parcel Service, Inc., 665 F. Supp. 119 (D.R.I. 1987). The Marley Court said, on the standard to be applied:

. . . the trier of fact must be satisfied that the new working conditions would have been so difficult or unpleasant that a reasonable person in the employee's shoes would have felt compelled to resign. Id. at p. 129.

The standard is very high because:

{E}very job has its frustrations, challenges and disappointments; these inhere in the nature of work. An employee is protected from a calculated effort to pressure him into resignation through the imposition of unreasonable harsh conditions, in excess of those faced by his coworkers. He is not, however, guaranteed a working environment free of stress. The employment discrimination laws require as an absolute precondition to suit that some adverse employment action be taken. Id. at p.129.

The First Circuit affirmed an objective standard: Calhoun v. Acme Cleveland Corp., 798 F. 2d 559, 561 (1st Cir. 1986) (the law does not permit an employee's subjective perceptions to govern a claim of constructive discharge) and Serrano-Cruz v. DFI Puerto Rico, Inc., 109 f. 3D 23, 26-27 (1st. Cir. 1997) (constructive discharge requires evidence of a drastic reduction in work conditions.) But many questions about constructive discharge remained unanswered, particularly about how this cause of action intersects with the elements of sexual harassment claims in the workplace. Just recently, the United States Supreme Court in Pennsylvania State Police v. Suders, 542 U.S.______ 2004 (decided June 14, 2004). 124 S.Ct. 2742 (2004) answered some of the questions.

The case arose as a Title VII action alleging hostile environment sexual harassment. Plaintiff Nancy Drew Suders was hired as a police communications operator for an isolated state police barracks in McConnellsburg, Pa. Apparently the officers wanted to hire someone else. She was immediately...

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