Resignation Can Start Lawsuit Time Limit

     (CN) – The Supreme Court on Monday ruled that federal workers who want to file a constructive discharge claim have 45 days from the time they resign to do so.
     The ruling effectively extends the time former federal employees have to file lawsuits over purported discriminatory acts in the workplace.
     With their 7-1 ruling the court rejected the Justice Department’s argument that the clock should start ticking on such claims when the conditions the filers allegedly confronted at work became intolerable.
     Marvin Green, a former Colorado postmaster, claimed in a lawsuit filed in September 2010, that the U.S. Postal Service retaliated against him after he complained that he was passed over for a promotion because he is black.
     
Green said after decades on the job, and after his participation in a postal service management training program, his application to fill the then-vacant position of postmaster in Boulder, Colo., was ignored, and the job given instead to a less qualified white employee who had not gone through the management training program.
     He filed a formal Equal Employment Opportunity complaint in August 2008, and thereafter, he said, his supervisors began bullying and harassing him. This behavior eventually escalated to what Green said was the postal service falsely accusing him of purposefully delaying mail, a felony.
     The investigation and back-and-forth over the matter continued for two years until he was presented with the choice of being demoted or retiring.
     Green says he signed a settlement agreement with the postal service, and then, weeks later, filed his retirement papers, immediately filing another EEO complaint, alleging he was forced to retire.
     Shortly thereafter, Green filed his federal lawsuit. U.S. District Judge Lewis Babcock almost immediately dismissed a number of Green’s claims, holding the former postal worker had not exhausted his administrative remedies.
     Then, in February 2013, Babcock tossed Green’s constructive-discharge claim, ruling the action was time-barred because the plaintiff had not contacted an EEO counselor about it within 45 days of December 16, 2009 – when Green signed the settlement papers.
     Green appealed the ruling, and the Tenth Circuit agreed with Babcock. But in seeking review by the Supreme Court, Green continues to insist that the 45-day time period began running not when he signed the settlement papers with the postal service, but rather when he resigned.
     In an opinion written for the court majority, Justice Sonya Sotomayor note that in cases where an employee claims he has been fired for discriminatory reasons “the ‘matter alleged to be discriminatory’ includes the discharge itself and the 45-day limitations period begins running only after the employee is fired.”
     In the case of Green and other federal employees, Sotomayor said when an employee is claiming he was forced from his job due to intolerable conditions, “the ‘matter alleged to be discriminatory’ includes the employee’s resignation, and the 45-day clock for a constructive discharge begins running only after the employee resigns.”
     In coming to this conclusion, Sotomayor said the most useful canon was the “standard rule” for limitations periods established by the 2005 case Graham County Soil & water Conservation Dist. v. United States ex rel. Wilson.
     That rules states that “ordinarily, a ‘limitations period commence when the plaintiff has a complete and present cause of action.'”
     “Applying this default rule, we are persuaded that the ‘matter alleged to be discriminatory’ in a constructive-discharge claim necessarily includes the employee’s resignation for three reasons. First, in the context of a constructive-discharge claim, a resignation is part of the ‘complete and present cause of action’ necessary before a limitations period ordinarily begins to run. Second, nothing in the regulation crating the limitations period here … clearly indicates an intent to displace this standard rule. Third, practical considerations confirm the merit of applying the standard rule here.”
     Justice Samuel Alito Jr. wrote a concurring opinion.
     In a dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas said the majority had held that “a ‘matter alleged to be discriminatory’ includes a matter that is not ‘discriminatory’ at all: a federal employee’s decision to quit his job.”
     “The majority reaches this conclusion by adopting an atextual reading of the regulation that expands the constructive-discharge doctrine,” Thomas said.
     ” … In doing so, the majority elevates constructive discharge to the status of a super termination capable of extending a limitations period far beyond the time the employer acted discriminatorily,” he continued. “The majority’s error is not merely one of regulatory misinterpretation. By misreading the regulation, the majority expands the constructive-discharge doctrine beyond its original bounds. In particular, the majority cements the (mistaken) notion that constructive discharge is an independent cause of action—and not a mere counter defense by unjustifiably focusing on an employee’s response to an employer’s conduct.”
     Thomas added, “Consistent with the text of the regulation and history of the constructive discharge doctrine, I would hold that only an employer’s actions may constitute a ‘matter alleged to be discriminatory.'”
     Sotomayor said despite the court’s decision, one factual issue remains in the case: when exactly Green gave the Postal Service notice of his resignation.
     “The Government argues that Green resigned on December 16, 2009 — when he signed the settlement agreement — and that his claim is therefore still time barred. Green argues that he did not resign until February 9, 2010 — when he submitted his retirement paperwork — and that his claim is therefore timely,” she wrote.
     But Sotomayor said the Supreme Court did not need to resolve this issue.
     “Having concluded that the limitations period for Green’s constructive discharge claim runs from the date he gave notice of his resignation, we leave it to the Tenth Circuit to determine when this in fact occurred,” she wrote.

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