Employment Discrimination: Supreme Court heard Oral Arguments re Filing Deadlines for Federal Employees

Posted by Sean P. CecilDec 04, 20150 Comments

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments Monday regarding commencement of the statute of limitations in an employment discrimination retaliation constructive discharge case involving the United States Postal Service. The Plaintiff, Marvin Green, resigned after a period of paid leave that followed an investigation after he complained of racial discrimination. Mr. Green was at one point accused of the criminal act of intentionally delaying the delivery of U.S. Mail, allegations that were debunked by the Postal Service's own investigation- this fact was not revealed to Mr. Green prior to his decision to resign rather than accepting a lower paying job hundreds of miles away. 

Mr. Green alleged five different actions by his employer constituted unlawful retaliation for his race discrimination complaint. His complaints were that the following acts constituted retaliation:

(1) a letter notifying him to attend an investigative interview;

(2) the investigative interview;

(3) a threat of criminal charges against him;

(4) his constructive discharge (forced resignation as a result of a hostile work environment); and

(5) his placement on unpaid leave (also known as emergency placement). 

The first three claims were dismissed for failing to "exhaust administrative remedies" (United States government employees have a rather complicated administrative review process that they must navigate prior to filing a lawsuit); the other two the trial court dismissed on a motion for summary judgment (court finds that undisputed material facts are such that one party is entitled to judgment without a full trial) after ruling that Mr. Green did not timely file his constructive discharge lawsuit and that the "emergency placement" was not an adverse action. Mr. Green appealed the dismissal, and on hearing the appeal the 10th Circuit affirmed the dismissal of all the allegations but one- the court agreed with Mr. Green that being placed on unpaid leave was a materially adverse action, and remanded the case back to the district court for trial. 

It is important to note that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits not only racial discrimination but retaliation against folks who complain of discrimination. Mr. Green's original complaint, that his supervisor's failure to hire him for a postmaster opening was racially motivated, was fully exhausted and resulted in a settlement- the alleged retaliation was separate and distinct from his discrimination complaint. Green submitted his retirement papers on February 9, 2010, effective March 31, and on March 22, he filed his internal complaint to the Post Office regarding constructive discharge through forced retirement. On April 23 he followed up with another charge.

The court of appeals held that the 45 day filing period for the constructive discharge allegation should begin on the date of the last alleged discriminatory (or in this case, retaliatory) act.  

The issue accepted by the United States Supreme Court for review was the question whether, under federal employment discrimination law, the filing period for a constructive discharge claim begins to run when an employee resigns, as five circuits have held, or at the time of an employer's last allegedly discriminatory act giving rise to the resignation, as three other circuits have held. Mr. Green's argument to the highest court was that, like in most any other civil case, the filing period can't begin until the facts making up the complaint are completed- ie, he couldn't have complained of constructive discharge prior to his actual date of retirement. The USPS argued that date must begin on the date he announced his resignation (Dec. 16, 2009); the Court had to appoint an attorney to defend the 10th Circuit's ruling that the last discriminatory act commenced the filing period. 

According to reports, it seems clear that the Justices do not seem likely to adopt the government's position that the filing period began at settlement negotiations December 16 when Mr. Green supposedly agreed to retire; the conservative wing seems likely to uphold the dismissal of the claims based upon a period that began at the point of the last act of discrimination, while the liberal Justices appeared inclined to use the actual date of Mr. Green's resignation. Interestingly, generally anti-worker Chief Justice Roberts surprised a lot of observers with some pro-worker rhetoric; he might be the swing vote if Mr. Green prevails. 

Green v. Brennan is an interesting, fact-specific case- I don't anticipate it will have a wide-ranging impact though, other than to provide some apparently-needed (based on the circuit split) clarification to the law. 

Employment discrimination cases are complicated, and fact specific. There is no such thing as a simple and easy employment discrimination case! It is generally helpful to consult an experienced employee-side employment law attorney as soon as possible after you think you have been subjected to discrimination. The North Carolina employment law attorneys at Edelstein Payne & Lucas have decades of experience litigating employment claims, including discrimination, on behalf of federal, state, and private employees. If you would like to meet with one of our attorneys regarding an employment law matter, please fill out our employment-law specific contact form on our employment law page