Race Discrimination in Green v. Brennan: Constructive Discharge Starts the Limitations Clock

Race discrimination in the workplace is unlawful under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Race discrimination claims, like other employment law claims, are subject to strict statute of limitations filing deadlines. Subject to certain very limited exceptions, the failure to file within the applicable deadline will forever bar a victim of employment discrimination from recovering damages – which can include financial loss, emotional distress, and punitives.

In Green v. Brennan, the United States Supreme Court decided when the filing period for a constructive discharge begins to run. There, the plaintiff, Marvin Green, worked for the Postal Service for 35 years. In 2008, he applied for a promotion and was passed over. Green alleged that he was denied the promotion because of his race and that he suffered retaliation thereafter. In 2011, two of Green’s supervisors accused him of delaying the mail; a criminal offense which prompted an investigation by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG). During the investigation, the supervisors provided Green with a letter re-assigning him to off-duty status. Although the OIG ultimately concluded that no further investigation was required, the supervisors maintained to Green that “the OIG is all over this” and that the criminal charge “could be a life changer.”

In December 2009, Green and his employer entered into an agreement in which the employer promised to not pursue criminal charges in exchange for Green to retire or accept a position in a different state with considerably less pay. In February 2010, Green chose to retire and thereafter contacted an Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) counselor to report his constructive discharge.

As a federal employee, under 29 CFR §1614.105(a)(1), Green was required to contact the EEO counselor within 45 days of when the discrimination occurred. The question before the Supreme Court was: When does the statute of limitations begins to run – at the time of constructive discharge or the employer’s last discriminatory act?

The Supreme Court ultimately held that Green’s constructive discharge started the filing deadline clock. In doing so, the Court focused on Title VII’s remedial purpose and the practical benefits of construing the start date in this manner:

Starting the limitations clock ticking before a plaintiff can actually sue for constructive discharge serves little purpose in furthering the goals of a limitations period – and it actively negates Title VII’s remedial structure. … If the limitations period begins to run following the employer’s precipitating discriminatory conduct, but before the employee’s resignation, the employee will be forced to file a discrimination complaint after the employer’s conduct and later amend the complaint to allege constructive discharge after he resigns. Nothing in the regulation suggests it intended to require a layperson, while making this difficult decision, to follow such a two-step process in order to preserve any remedy if he is constructively discharged.

This case highlights the strict nature of statute of limitations deadlines and the importance of meeting with an employment lawyer early on for guidance once a workplace issue arises. In the end, understanding the procedural nuances is equally as important as the substance of the claim.

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