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Workers face high hurdle proving ‘Constructive discharge’

by on
in Firing,Human Resources

Sometimes, employees who believe they're being harassed or discriminated against feel the situation is so bad that they're forced to quit. This is called "constructive discharge."

But to show that resignation constitutes a constructive discharge, employees must demonstrate more than mere harassment or a hostile working condition. They must show that working conditions were so intolerable that any reasonable employee would feel compelled to resign.

Quoting a 2004 U.S. Supreme Court decision, a recent 5th Circuit ruling said employees aiming to prove constructive discharge must establish a "worst-case harassment scenario," or "harassment ratcheted up to the breaking point."

Case in point: Sue Ann Easterling applied for a high-school basketball coaching job. Although Easterling had more than 20 years teaching and coaching experience and held a state teaching certification, she was passed over in favor of a male applicant who had coaching experience but only a temporary teaching certification. Easterling resigned and claimed she was retaliated against and constructively discharged.

The 5th Circuit tossed out Easterling's case, saying she didn't prove any of the factors relevant to a constructive discharge inquiry. She couldn't prove that her working conditions were so intolerable that a reasonable person would have felt compelled to resign. (Easterling v. School Board of Concordia Parish, No. 05-30868, 5th Cir., 2006)

Final tip: When an employee claims discrimination, it may seem natural to think of that person as a troublemaker. The temptation may be to make life so miserable that he or she will quit. But don't do it. While the employee may ultimately quit, your organization could be on the hook for a constructive-discharge claim.  

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