Labor and Employment

Constructive Discharge: An Abusive Atmosphere

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Have you ever felt like storming into your boss' office to say, "I've had enough and I quit?" Drama aside, many employees quit or resign because they can't stand the working conditions. In some instances, it's called constructive discharge, and employees have legal options when it happens.

The Basics

Constructive discharge is when you quit or resign from your job because working conditions were so intolerable you felt you had no other choice but to leave. The key here is that your employer created a work environment, or allowed it to continue, in an effort to get you to quit. Or, the employer knew the work environment would likely cause you or any other reasonable employee to quit.

To prove a claim of constructive discharge, you generally have to show:

  • You were mistreated at work by some action or policy taken by your employer
  • You complained to your supervisor, boss or human resources department, but the mistreatment continued
  • The mistreatment was so intolerable that any reasonable employee would quit rather than continue to work in that environment
  • Your quitting or resignation and the mistreatment happened close together in time, that is, there's a clear cause and effect between the mistreatment and your leaving

"Mistreatment" means more than a "mean" boss or occasionally name-calling by a co-worker. As a general rule, the mistreatment has to be connected to something illegal. A good example is sexual harassment. For instance, say a co-worker is making sexual advances toward you or makes sexually explicit comments to you frequently at work, even though you've asked him to stop. You then report his behavior to your supervisor and to the human resources department. After several weeks, nothing changed; the employer hasn't done anything to stop the co-worker and the co-worker continues as before. Finally, you've had enough of the mistreatment and you quit. In such circumstances, you probably have a good claim for constructive discharge.

On the other hand, you may not have a good case if, for example, you quit two days after you made your first complaint to the boss or several weeks after the co-worker was fired. First, you need to give your employer a chance to fix the problem, and once the co-worker was fired, your quitting may not be connected to or caused by the sexual harassment.

Other areas where constructive discharge claims may arise is when your employer reduces your pay or hours, increases or decreases or work load, or otherwise mistreats you based on:

What about "At-Will" Employment?

At-will employment means you can quit for any reason or for no reason at all. As a general rule, if you voluntarily quit your job or resign without a good reason, you not only have no legal action against your employer, but you can't get unemployment compensation benefits.

However, if you've been constructively discharged, you can apply for unemployment benefits. This is so because, in the eyes of the law, you didn't voluntarily quit. Rather, you were forced to quit because of your employer's misconduct.

Severe Penalties

Your former employer faces stiff penalties if you can prove you were constructively discharged. You may be entitled to:

  • Back-pay, which is the wages or salary you would have made from the time you quit until you filed the lawsuit
  • Front-pay, or payment of your normal wages or salary from the time you won the case until you're re-hired by your former employer or until you find a similar job
  • Your attorney's fees
  • Compensatory damages, which is money meant to pay for any pain and suffering or mental distress you experienced because of the discharge
  • Punitive damages, which punish the employer for its wrong-doing and tries to "convince" it not to make the same mistake again

This is a very brief and general discussion of constructive discharge. Most cases are very complicated. If you think you have a claim, talk to an attorney as soon as possible, and preferably before you quit or resign. Or, contact the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). In either event, keep detailed notes of any mistreatment by your employer or co-workers, including dates, times and when you reported it.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Do I have to file a complaint with the EEOC before I can a file a lawsuit against my employer?
  • Is there any reason why I should I refuse my employer's offer to re-hire me if I win my constructive discharge suit?
  • How long will my lawsuit be in the courts? Do I have to take a low-paying job while the case is pending?
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