SCOTUS Issues Decision in Employment Discrimination Case

By: Christopher S. Drewry

Earlier this week the Supreme Court of the United States issued its opinion in Green v. Brennan.  The case involved a racial discrimination claim by Marvin Green against his employer, the United States Postal Service.  As opposed to ruling on the merits of the allegations, the decision allowed the lawsuit to proceed on the basis that the lower court erred in dismissing the claim on procedural grounds.

By way of background, in 2008 Green applied for a job as the postmaster in Boulder, Colorado (he was already postmaster in a nearby suburb).  When he did not get the job, he complained that it was because he is black.  At Green’s existing job, his employment relationship worsened and he was ultimately accused by his supervisors of criminal wrongdoing.  Green and the Postal Service later reached an agreement – in exchange for not pursuing any criminal charges against him, Green would either retire or take a less lucrative job in Wyoming.  Thereafter, Green tendered his resignation on February 9, 2010, to take effect on March 31.  On March 22nd – 41 days after resigning and 96 days after signing the agreement – he reported to an Equal Employment Opportunity counselor an unlawful constructive discharge (that is, he had been forced to resign because conditions in his workplace had become intolerable).  This is the administrative prerequisite to filing a complaint alleging discrimination or retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Green eventually filed a lawsuit in federal district court, which subsequently dismissed his complaint as untimely because he had not contacted the EEO counselor within 45 days of the “matter alleged to be discriminatory.” The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that the 45-day limitations period began to run on December 16, the day that Green signed the agreement.

Upon the Supreme Court’s review of the case, the Court concluded that, for purposes of a constructive-discharge claim under Title VII, the phrase “matter alleged to be discriminatory” is the employee’s resignation such that the 45-day limitations period for such action begins running only after the employee resigns.  Additionally, the Court agreed that a constructive-discharge claim accrues – and the limitations period begins to run – when the employee gives notice of his resignation, not on the effective date thereof.

While this case may not immediately strike you as significant, it does provide another “win” for employee plaintiffs.  Without a ruling in his favor on the limitations period, Green never would have been able to maintain his lawsuit in the first place.  From a broader perspective, the Supreme Court’s ruling is decidedly pro-plaintiff in that it provides clarity to potential claimants regarding the triggering of the limitations period in constructive discharge cases. And from a practical standpoint, many employees who believe they may have been victims of discrimination may not realize that they have a potential constructive discharge complaint until they actually resign.  With this case, it is now easier for them to eventually bring a lawsuit against their former employer.