Labor and Employment

Constructive Discharge: Were You Forced to Quit Because of Intolerable Working Conditions?

By Lisa Guerin, ​J.D., Boalt Hall at the University of California at Berkeley
If you were forced to quit for illegal reasons, you may have a claim for constructive discharge.

Have you ever felt like storming into your manager’s office and saying, "I've had enough and I quit!"? If so, you’re not alone: Many employees quit or resign because their working conditions have grown intolerable. If you were forced to quit your job due to illegal working conditions, it’s called a “constructive discharge.” If your employer tried to push you out for illegal reasons, you may have grounds for a wrongful termination lawsuit, even if you technically quit your job.

What Is Constructive Discharge?

When you quit or resign from your job because you were subjected to illegal working conditions that were so intolerable that you felt you had no other choice, it’s called a constructive discharge. Even though you quit, the law treats you as if you were fired, because your employer essentially forced you out.

Proving You Were Forced to Quit

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

  • You were subjected to illegal working conditions or treatment at work (such as sexual harassment or retaliation for complaining of workplace safety violations).
  • 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.
  • You quit because of the mistreatment.

For instance, say a male coworker 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 report his behavior to your supervisor and to the human resources manager, who both ignore your complaints. After several weeks, nothing has changed; your employer hasn't done anything to stop your coworker, who continues to harass you. Finally, you've had enough of the mistreatment and you quit. In such circumstances, you would probably have a good claim for constructive discharge.

If, on the other hand, you quit two days after you made your first complaint to the boss, you likely would not be able to prove constructive discharge. You must give your employer a chance to fix the problem rather than quitting at the first sign of trouble.

Proving Your Discharge Was Illegal

Most employees in this country work at will, which means they can be fired at any time, for any reason that is not illegal. It’s not enough to prove you were compelled to quit: You must also prove that your employer’s reason for forcing you out was illegal. If you felt compelled to quit because your manager was a bully who made work life miserable for everyone, for example, you wouldn’t necessarily have a constructive discharge claim. But if you quit because your manager bullied and berated you because of your disability, you likely have a strong legal claim.

Here are some common wrongful termination claims that come up in constructive discharge situations:

  • Discrimination and harassment. If you quit because you were being discriminated against or harassed due to a protected characteristic (such as your race or religion), you have a wrongful termination claim. (See Discrimination and Harassment in the Workplace for more information)
  • Retaliation. If your employer forces you to quit because you complained about illegal workplace behavior (such as discrimination, harassment, failure to pay overtime, and so on), you have grounds for a lawsuit. The same is true if your employer pushes you out because you exercised your legal rights, such as your right to take time off work under the Family and Medical Leave Act, your right to join a union or discuss union matters with other employees, or your right to refuse to work in dangerous conditions.
  • Breach of contract. If you have an employment contract stating you may be fired only for good cause, and your employer forces you to quit, you can sue your employer for not honoring the contract.

Damages for Constructive Discharge

If you win a constructive discharge case, you will be entitled to money damages from your employer. The damages available depend on the legal claims you can make—that is, they depend on the reason why your employer forced you out. Depending on the facts, you may be entitled to:

  • back pay: the wages or benefits you lost as a result of being forced to quit
  • front pay: the wages or benefits you will lose going forward, until you find a new job
  • attorneys’ fees and court costs
  • compensatory damages: compensation for the pain and suffering or mental distress you experienced because of the discharge, and/or
  • punitive damages: an award intended to punish your employer for especially egregious misconduct.

Constructive discharge cases can be hard to prove. You must show not only that your employer acted illegally, but also that the behavior was bad enough to compel a reasonable employee to quit. Courts tend to hold employees to a very high standard here, requiring proof that your working conditions were truly intolerable. To figure out whether you have strong legal claims, you’ll probably need to talk to an experienced employment lawyer.

Unemployment Benefits

In general, employees are typically not eligible to collect unemployment when they quit their jobs voluntarily. However, if you were forced to quit in a constructive discharge, you should still qualify for unemployment benefits. When you file your claim for benefits, explain that you were compelled to quit due to your employer’s mistreatment. (For more information, see Unemployment Compensation When You’ve Lost Your Job.)

Questions for Your Attorney

  • How long do I have to file a lawsuit against my former employer for constructive discharge?
  • Should I accept my employer's offer to rehire me if I win my constructive discharge suit?
  • How long will my lawsuit take? Do I have to take a job that pays less than my former job while the case is pending?

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