May 23, 2016

Supreme Court Decides Green v. Brennan

On May 23, 2016, the Supreme Court of the United States decided Green v. Brennan, No. 14-613, holding that a constructive-discharge claim accrues — and the limitations period begins to run — when the employee gives notice of his resignation, and not when he signs a contract to either resign or accept a transfer, or on the effective date of his resignation.

Marvin Green was passed over for a promotion within the U.S. Postal Service and alleged that he was denied the promotion because of his race. Shortly thereafter, two of his supervisors accused him of intentionally delaying the mail, which is a criminal offense. Five days later, on December 16, 2009, Green and the Postal Service signed an agreement under which the Postal Service promised not to pursue criminal charges in exchange for Green’s promise to either retire or start working at a different office at a lower salary. Green chose to retire, and submitted resignation paperwork on February 9, 2010, with an effective date of March 31.

On March 22 — 96 days after signing the settlement agreement and 41 days after submitting his resignation paperwork — Green contacted an Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) counselor to report an unlawful constructive discharge, alleging that the choice the Postal Service had given him effectively forced his resignation.

As a federal civil servant, 29 CFR § 1614.105(a)(1) required Green to contact an EEO counselor within 45 days of the “matter alleged to be discriminatory.” If the “matter alleged to be discriminatory” was his execution of the settlement agreement, he was too late. But if the triggering event was submission of his resignation papers approximately eight weeks later, he was timely.

Green sued in federal district court alleging a constructive discharge that violated Title VII. The district court granted summary judgment to the Postal Service. The 10th Circuit affirmed, holding that the “matter alleged to be discriminatory” was only the Postal Service’s discriminatory actions in December 2009, and not Green’s submission of resignation paperwork two months later, so the 45-day limit started running in December 2009, when Green signed the settlement agreement.

The Supreme Court reversed. The Court began by concluding that the text of the regulation was ambiguous when applied to constructive-discharge claims like Green’s. Thus, the Court relied on other canons of construction to resolve the case. The primary canon upon which the Court relied was the “standard rule” for limitations periods, under which a limitations period starts to run only when the plaintiff has a complete and present cause of action upon which he can file suit and obtain relief. The Court concluded that under the standard rule, the phrase “matter alleged to be discriminatory” includes the employee’s resignation, not just the employer’s alleged wrongful conduct that prompted that resignation. The Court explained that a constructive-discharge claim has two basic elements: (1) discrimination such that a reasonable person in the plaintiff’s position would have felt compelled to resign; and (2) actual resignation. Accordingly, Green’s resignation was “an essential part of his constructive-discharge claim” and therefore was part of the “complete and present cause of action” that was necessary to trigger the limitation period. Also, nothing in the regulation creating the 45-day limitation period for federal civil servants clearly indicates an intent to displace the standard rule governing limitation periods. And practical considerations supported applying the standard rule in Green’s case, because “[s]tarting the limitations clock ticking before a plaintiff can actually sue for constructive discharge serves little purpose in furthering the goals of a limitations period — and it actively negates Title VII’s remedial structure.” And some employees may choose to endure the wrongful conduct for some time until (for example) they can afford to leave and seek another job.

Finally, the Court held that the limitations period started running when Green gave “notice” of his resignation, and not on the date his resignation took effect (i.e., his last day on the job). The Postal Service contended that Green gave notice when he signed the settlement agreement in December, but Green argued he did not give notice until he submitted his resignation paperwork in February. The Court remanded the case to the 10th Circuit to determine the precise date on which Green gave notice that he would resign.

Justice Sotomayor delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan joined. Justice Alito filed an opinion concurring in the judgment. Justice Thomas filed a dissenting opinion.

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