The U.S. Supreme Court recently handed down an important decision that will almost certainly aid victims of workplace discrimination in their efforts to attain restitution.
In Green v. Brennan, what was alleged was a case of severe and long-running racial discrimination against a black mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service.
Plaintiff was a 35-year- veteran of the Postal Service when the trouble first started. A job for postmaster opened in Colorado. Plaintiff applied, but his bosses passed him over – for someone far less qualified. It was later revealed the person who landed the job hadn’t even turned in an application.
Plaintiff Green contacted a counselor with the EEOC. An investigation was launched. Soon after the Postal Service caught wind of plaintiff’s complaint. In turn, the service launched its own investigation, which morphed into (or perhaps was always intended as) a campaign of harassment.
Suddenly, plaintiff found himself accused by his long-time employer as intentionally delaying the mail. Plaintiff was quickly cleared of that charge, but his bosses didn’t tell that to EEOC investigators.
Soon thereafter, plaintiff – scared that he was going to face further harassment and potentially trumped up criminal charges – signed an agreement in which he was essentially forced to resign. His official resignation was tendered in March 2010.
Just before his official end date, he again contacted the EEOC to assert employment retaliation, saying he’d been forced to resign. The case went to court, but the judge tossed it immediately.
Now of course, workplace discrimination is illegal and so is retaliation. What happened?
The Postal Service cited a portion of federal law that requires federal employees alleging discrimination to contact an EEOC counselor within 45 days of the date of the discrimination in order for the claim to be valid. Plaintiff argued that would have been the date of his resignation, as that was spurred by discriminatory treatment. However, the Postal Service asserted the action began accrual when plaintiff first announced his resignation, which was in December 2009. The judge sided with defendant employer.
The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals also sided against plaintiff, and further set a troubling precedent. Justices ruled that the relevant matter is the last discriminatory act that gave rise to a worker’s discrimination. That would mean in this case plaintiff’s claim would have accrued long before he actually filed the complaint.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision reversed the appeals court, with Justice Clarence Thomas being the lone dissenter. (Justice Antonin Scalia, before his death, filed a concurrence, though he disagreed with the majority’s logic.)
Justice Sonya Sotomayor, writing for the majority, wrote that a claim for constructive discharge – one in which a person suffers discrimination so bad they are forced to quit – necessarily includes the resignation itself. That means that while that 45-day window is still in place, the clock doesn’t start ticking on it until the person actually quits. It is at that time that a person has a “complete and present cause of action,” the court ruled.
This ruling is important because, as our Orange County employment attorneys know, very few workers want to file an employment discrimination lawsuit while they are still working at that company. Doing so is only going to invite further mistreatment. And in the end, that’s the whole point of being able to pursue legal action for “constructive discharge.” It doesn’t force employees to pursue a claim while still being mired in a toxic work environment.
Contact the employment attorneys at Nassiri Law Group, practicing in Orange County, Riverside and Los Angeles. Call 949.375.4734.
Green v. Brennan, May 23, 2016, U.S. Supreme Court
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