Can a Unilateral Change in Work Conditions Be Enough to Establish Constructive Discharge?

Sometimes, the situation at work can become so unbearable that an employee feels there is no other option but to quit. Depending on the circumstances, even an employee who resigns "voluntarily" may have a claim for employment discrimination. This type of claim is referred to as "constructive discharge," meaning that the employer either created or allowed an environment that was so intolerable the employee was effectively "forced" to quit.

How to Prove a Constructive Discharge Claim

Proving a constructive discharge claim can be difficult. Obviously, the employer's defense will be that the employee was not terminated, but quit on his own volition. It is the employee's burden to show that he was subjected to mistreatment that was "so intolerable that any reasonable employee would quit rather than continue to work in that environment."

What Type of Mistreatment is Required?

To be successful on a constructive discharge claim, you must show more than your supervisor being mean, or co-workers picking on you sporadically. Typically, these claims involve mistreatment following a complaint regarding some type of illegal conduct. If you complained about racial harassment and your employer did not take any action to remedy the problem, you can quit because the harassment continued and became so intolerable that you had no other choice.

A Unilateral Change in Employment Conditions Could Be Sufficient

A recent opinion in Pennsylvania, concerning a challenge to unemployment benefits, shines some light on a possible basis for a constructive discharge claim. In that case, the employer opposed the unemployment compensation claim of a former employee who, employer claims, quit voluntarily; however, the employee alleges that he was forced to resign as a result of a considerable, unilateral adjustment of his pay and performance goals.

Decreased Pay and "Unachievable Expectations"

According to the opinion in this case, the employee had been assigned a new supervisor. Shortly thereafter, he filed a formal complaint against his former supervisor, noting that he had experienced many problems with them. The employer dismissed the complaint and refused to take any action. Not long after, the new supervisor changed the method of calculating the employee's bonuses, a revision which would substantially reduce his annual pay. The supervisor also created new performance goals for the employee, which the worker described as "unachievable expectations." The employee quit as a result.

Finding Proof of Necessitous and Compelling Cause to Quit

Ultimately, the court reviewed the Unemployment Compensation Review Board's decision that the employee should receive Unemployment Compensation benefits and agreed that "the substantial unilateral changes made by the employer in a retaliatory fashion… [gave] rise to a necessitous and compelling reason for claimant to quit this job." In other words, the events that took place in the four week period, including the significant decrease in pay, created a sufficient reason to quit. The Court also held that it was reasonable for the employee to believe the "unachievable expectations" were a form of retaliation for his formal complaint.

The court was careful note that "mere dissatisfaction with reasonable modifications" does not warrant a "necessitous and compelling cause to quit." Nonetheless, employers need to be careful when making unilateral changes that could be viewed as retaliatory. Likewise, employees should carefully weigh their situation to ensure that unfavorable changes are, in fact, discriminatory. An employment lawyer can help them determine if their situation provides sufficient cause for litigation.

To speak with a Birmingham employment law attorney, call Wrady & Michel, LLC at (205) 265-1880 for a consultation.

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