By Sam Hananel – May 23, 2016
The Supreme Court is making it easier for federal workers to file employment discrimination lawsuits after quitting their jobs over conditions they consider intolerable.
The justices ruled 7-1 Monday that workers who bring so-called “constructive discharge” claims have 45 days from the time they resign to begin the process. The court rejected the Justice Department’s position that the clock should start running when the alleged abuse occurs.
The ruling gives employees more time to bring bias lawsuits for discriminatory acts that occurred months or years before legal action begins.
The court sided with Marvin Green, a former Colorado postmaster who says he was forced to quit his job due to racial discrimination. A federal appeals court dismissed Green’s case after ruling that he waited too long to file a complaint.
Writing for the high court, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said Green’s lawsuit was filed within the 45-day time period because the clock didn’t start running until he actually resigned from his post.
Sotomayor said the ruling makes practical sense because some employees might delay resigning until they can afford to leave or for other reasons.
The case is important to federal workers, who aren’t permitted to file an employment discrimination lawsuit until they first file an administrative claim with their agency. But the internal claim must be filed “within 45 days of the date of the matter alleged to be discriminatory.”
The ruling resolves a split among lower courts about when the 45-day clock starts running for federal employees to notify their employers about the claims.
Justice Clarence Thomas, the Supreme Court’s only black justice, dissented, saying his colleagues have misread the statute. Thomas said it refers to conduct by the employer, not a worker’s decision to quit his job.
Green, who is black, was serving as postmaster general in Englewood, Colorado, in 2008 when he decided to apply for a similar post in Boulder. After he was turned down, he contacted a Postal Service counselor to investigate whether race played a factor.
Relations with his supervisors soured after the discrimination complaint, and Green claimed he was a victim of retaliation. In 2009, his superiors suspended him without pay after accusing him of intentionally delaying the mail.
Green signed an agreement on Dec. 16, 2009, agreeing to leave the Postal Service in exchange for a promise the agency would not bring criminal charges against him. But he waited nearly two months to submit his resignation. And he didn’t make a claim of constructive discharge until March 22, 2010.