Employees of both large corporations and small businesses deserve respect and workplace safety. No one should have to endure bullying, harassment, or abuse at work. But sometimes, employees feel forced to resign because workplace abuse and harassment have become so bad. If you’ve ever found yourself in this situation, you may have a claim for constructive discharge.
In this post, the Smithey Law Group team will explain what constitutes constructive discharge. We’ll also provide some examples to help you understand whether your resignation may have been a wrongful termination in disguise. If you think you may have been a victim of discrimination or harassment constituting constructive discharge, don’t hesitate to contact an experienced employment lawyer, like a member of the Smithey Law Group team, right away.
What Constitutes Constructive Discharge?
Most states recognize the concept of constructive discharge. Constructive discharge occurs when an employee quits their job instead of being terminated because the employer makes the working conditions so intolerable that the employee effectively had no other choice. Despite having voluntarily resigned on paper, the employee had no reasonable alternative to quitting due to their working conditions. The conditions leading to constructive discharge often include harassment, discrimination, bullying, and even forms of workplace violence.
Because of the unlawful working conditions created by the employer, the law would see a resignation in response to such conditions as a termination instead of a voluntary resignation. Speak with an employment lawyer if your workplace conditions get so intolerable that you think you need to quit your job. This is extremely important to help you understand what constitutes constructive discharge and what does not.
Elements of a Constructive Discharge Claim
Constructive discharge claims are not easy to prove. An employee can’t simply quit their job, claim they were bullied into quitting, then try to collect damages on a constructive discharge claim. No employment attorney would suggest that as a good roadmap to how to win a constructive discharge case!
Elements of the Claim
Instead, constructively discharged employees need to prove all elements of constructive discharge to bring a successful claim. In many ways, a constructive discharge claim is similar to the way an employee might prove they were wrongfully terminated. For example, most states require an employee to prove that working conditions were so unusually bad that a reasonable employee in their position would have felt compelled to resign. Maryland is no exception to this rule. Employees in Maryland also need to show that they were subjected to bad working conditions because they belonged to a protected category. Meaning, they were treated badly because of their race, gender, religion, age, etc.
Nearly all states require employees to show that their employer intended to force them to quit or had actual knowledge of the intolerable working conditions. Maryland further requires that employees show their employer had the intent to cause the employee’s resignation. While this sounds like a tall order, the Maryland courts, relying on established precedent, have held that an employee need only show that the employer knew that the employee’s resignation was a foreseeable consequence of its actions to prove intent.
An experienced employment law attorney can help you understand how these rules apply to your case.
Pattern or Practice
Employees typically also need to show a pattern of continual bad conduct by their employer before an employee’s resignation will be considered a constructive discharge. One negative comment, a single bad performance evaluation, or alone, unappreciated dirty joke usually won’t meet the standard of intolerable or unusually adverse employment conditions. Instead, you need to demonstrate that such conduct went on for a prolonged period.
However, in some situations, a single act or incident, such as a sexual or physical assault against the employee, maybe enough to overcome the need for a pattern of bad conduct. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) also lays out a series of criteria to help you assess whether you may be facing discrimination in employment. Check with an employment lawyer to determine whether any of these factors have been at play in your work environment.
Factors to Consider
In understanding constructive discharge and whether employer conduct is sufficiently egregious, courts focus on factors such as:
- The nature of the employer’s conduct (i.e., whether it was physical, sexual, emotional, etc.);
- Whether the employer registered the employee’s complaints and investigated them; and
- Whether a long time has passed between the alleged employer conduct and the employee’s resignation (i.e., whether the conduct was really the reason for the resignation).
Considering all these factors helps lawyers and courts decide the strength of a constructive discharge case. To help you in understanding constructive discharge and assessing the strength of your own case, speak with an employment lawyer.
Constructive Discharge Examples
Rarely does an employer say, “We don’t want to pay you severance so we’ll make you miserable until you quit.” Rather, constructive discharge claims typically consist of long-term aggressions related to race, gender, sex, or other protected categories. These behaviors build over time until an employee has no choice but to leave the company. Some constructive discharge examples include:
- Singling out a female employee for constant criticism in front of her peers;
- Demeaning, or shaming a Jewish employee in front of others for leaving early on Fridays to meet religious obligations;
- Bullying or excluding a disabled employee from meetings because they require certain accommodations;
- Working in a position of power and turning a blind eye to bullying or discrimination of others; and
- Refusing to investigate employee complaints and retaliating against employees who file grievances.
In most cases, the employer can be liable for the bad behavior of its employees if they were acting within the scope of their authority. Meaning, if a manager perpetrates discriminatory behavior that causes your constructive discharge, the company may be liable.
How Smithey Law Group Can Help
At Smithey Law, Joyce E. Smithey and her team of experienced employment law practitioners work with clients to get the employment law results they need. Our team provides client-centered service while fighting aggressively for your rights. We have a well-established track record of helping clients through employment litigation and negotiation. We understand how challenging workplace harassment can be, and we work to help you recover. Contact us today for a case consultation.