Constructive discharge is an exception to the Employment-at-Will Doctrine. It’s a legal concept developed by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), a government agency that protects workers’ union rights. The NLRB developed the concept to right the wrong when employers coerced employees to resign, because the employees were legitimately involved in union activities.

Since then, constructive discharge law has been evolving in the courts to cover other situations. The legal concept has become a doctrine, for which the particulars are still evolving at this writing. But, constructive discharge now generally means an employee resignation caused solely by an employer implementing or allowing an extraordinary change that made working conditions so intolerable, it would have compelled any reasonable employee to resign.

In other words, under the constructive discharge doctrine, when an employer allows intolerable conditions to persist that create a severely hostile work environment to such a degree that a reasonable employee would understandably resign, it may be viewed by the quitting employee as a termination.

The following is a summation of the general proof required to establish a case for constructive discharge:

* The change must have been recent and so intolerable that it would have compelled any reasonable employee to quit soon after it occurred.
* The employer must have deliberately implemented or permitted the change, without having justifiable business reasons and despite that it was apparent it would compel any reasonable employee to resign. Even if the employer’s intention was not specifically to force an employee to resign, an employee’s resignation still might constitute constructive discharge under the circumstances.
* An employee’s resignation must have occurred close enough in time after the intolerable change that it established a clear “cause and effect” relationship, directly resulting in a constructive discharge.

Punitive transfer to a dangerous job, demotion to a humiliating position, hostility, harassment and coercion are each an example of an intolerable, working-condition change that might establish a case for constructive discharge, particularly if the employer made or allowed the change as a form of discrimination or retaliation.

If an employee quits because of something that’s always “bugged” him or her, or because of petty and other changes that most reasonable employees would tolerate, it’s not likely to constitute constructive discharge. The same would be true for an employer who implemented a legitimate change for justifiable business reasons and an employee quit simply because he or she didn’t like it.

If you think that your resignation constituted constructive discharge, consult an employment firm such as Tuckner, Sipser. If we think that your resignation constituted constructive discharge, we will help you determine the best legal recourse (which may include filing a charge with a government agency, a private lawsuit in court, or both.) You might be entitled to collect back pay and benefits, and money for damages and legal expenses.

Remember, you must establish a timely cause and effect relationship. Additionally, there’s likely to be statute of limitations (time limits) within which an action must be filed. It’s best to consult with a lawyer before you quit, to determine if you’d have a legitimate case for constructive discharge in the first instance.

Deborah O’Rell, Client Advocate

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