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Friday, July 22, 2011

Constructive termination


Constructive termination
Duffy v Paper Magic Group, Inc., CA3, 265 F.3d 163

It is not enough to that the individual feel stressed or frustrated by his or her job situation to claim constructive discharge. The individual must show the existence of a pattern of “intolerable conduct” to support such a claim.

Bernadine Duffy complained that she was constructively discharged as a result of a continuing pattern of discrimination by Paper Magic. Among the examples of treatment she contended resulted in her constructive discharge were the following:

1. She was “passed over” for a promotion;

2. Her supervisor “bent over backwards” to make another, younger, employee's “life easier.”

3. She worked overtime hours, but unlike other salaried employees, did not receive overtime pay.

4. She was one of two supervisors excluded from a company meeting and from a training seminar for supervisors.

5. Supervisors made derogatory remarks about her age.

Duffy said that she complained about such conduct to her employer but nothing changed. As a result of these working conditions Duffy said that her health deteriorated, requiring her to seek treatment by a physician. Duffy resigned from her position and filed charges of unlawful discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission.

In the litigation that followed, the District Court concluded that Duffy failed to demonstrate that she was constructively discharged or otherwise suffered an adverse employment action within the meaning of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act [ADEA] and entered summary judgment in favor of Paper Magic.

The Circuit Court sustained the lower court's action, rejecting Duffy claim that she was constructively discharged because she experienced a “continuous pattern of discriminatory treatment” at Paper Magic.

It appears that Duffy's testimony focused almost entirely on her subjective view that Paper Magic constructively discharged her but she failed to establish any of the situations set out by the Third Circuit in Clowes v Allegheny Valley Hospital, 991 F.2d 1159, suggesting constructive discharge.

Elements that could support a finding of constructive discharge include the employer's threats to fire an employee, encouraging the employee to resign, or involuntarily transferred an individual to a less desirable position.

Among other actions that could support a claim of constructive discharge - the employer is aware that the employee has been subjected to a continuous pattern of harassment and the employer does nothing to stop it.

The court cited Aman v Cort Furniture Rental Corp., 85 F.3d 1074, to illustrate the course of conduct that could be deemed constructive discharge. In Amen the court said that continuously subjecting a black worker to racially-based insults; admonitions “not to touch or steal anything”; being forced to do menial tasks not assigned to white employees; subjecting the individual to actions by co-workers withholding information and stealing documents needed to perform the job; and the employer's threats to “get rid of [the employee].”

These elements were not present in Duffy's case. Her department was understaffed. But management's deliberate delay in providing needed assistance, thereby making her job more difficult, did not make her job impossible. It simply required her to work longer hours until help arrived, making her job more stressful, but not unbearable. In the words of the court, “employees are not guaranteed stress-free environments and discrimination laws cannot be transformed into a palliative for every workplace grievance, real or imagined, by the simple expedient of quitting.”

The Circuit Court also ruled that Duffy's attempt to use her physician's opinion that her job had an adverse affect upon her health to bolster her claim that her working conditions were intolerable also fails. These health problems support an inference that Duffy's environment was stressful. Again, leaving a stressful environment does not amount to constructive discharge.

Duffy's own explanation as to why she resigned, said that her decision was based, in part, on her son's recent graduation from college and her resultant financial ability to leave. This, said court, “supports our conclusion that [Duffy] was not constructively discharged.”

The Circuit Court decided that Duffy had not produce evidence from which a reasonable jury could find an adverse employment action -- a prerequisite to a successful age discrimination claim -- and affirmed the District Court's summary judgment.

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