An employee who voluntarily quits their job is, in most circumstances, not entitled to collect unemployment benefits or sue their employer for wrongful termination. However, an employee who believes they were forced to quit their job because their working conditions were intolerable may be able to argue that they were “constructively discharged,” meaning that the termination of their employment is viewed not as a resignation but as though the employee was fired. In such circumstances, an employee who might not otherwise have been able to apply for unemployment benefits or to make a claim against their employer for wrongful termination will be permitted to do so.
The test of whether a constructive discharge has occurred is an objective one. The fact finder (i.e., the judge or jury) must evaluate whether the conditions in which the employee was expected to work were so difficult or unpleasant that a reasonable person in the employee’s shoes would have felt compelled to resign. Whether this standard has been met is fact-specific. The conditions that the employee is expected to endure must be extreme to be considered intolerable. Conditions that might give rise to claim of constructive discharge include discrimination, harassment, the employer’s failure to pay compensation due to the employee or a change to the employee’s status (i.e., a demotion, significant pay cut or transfer that would lead to unbearable working conditions). However, employees are cautioned the mere fact that a discriminatory act may have occurred does not operate to convert a voluntarily resignation to a constructive discharge. One incident alone is not usually enough to lead to a constructive discharge but, of course, there are exceptions. Furthermore, courts have concluded that an employee’s dissatisfaction with an assignment or compensation, embarrassment, or disagreement with criticism of their performance are insufficient to establish constructive discharge.
The employee’s resignation must be reasonably close in time to the alleged misconduct or intolerable action by the employer; courts have found that delays of as little as four months may be even too long to support a finding of constructive discharge. In some cases, an employee who failed to communicate with their employer in an effort to remedy the situation may not be able to claim that they were constructively discharged. This rule is not true in all cases, however.
An employee who believes their work conditions are intolerable and is considering resigning should consider consulting with a lawyer before taking that drastic step if they plan to apply for unemployment benefits or make a legal claim against their employer to ensure they have taken appropriate steps before resigning to preserve their claim.
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