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Is it Constructive Discharge if I'm Allowed to Resign Instead of Being Terminated?

The term constructive discharge refers to being forced to quit your job because the working conditions are intolerable and you are essentially left with no other choice. Claims for constructive discharge in the employment context can be shown when the employer created the hostile environment or allowed it to continue, as a way to force the employee to quit. Another theory is that the employer knew the intolerable work environment existed and would likely cause any reasonable employee to quit. A recent case involving a school principal and a pending DUI charge sheds some light on the concept of constructive discharge.


Judge v. Shikellamy School District


A recent case out of Pennsylvania, Judge v. Shikellamy School District, considered the true nature of constructive discharge claims in the context of “forced resignation.” After being arrested for DUI, an elementary school principal was offered the opportunity to resign before she was formally charged. Otherwise, termination proceedings would be instituted by the school board, including a hearing. She ultimately resigned but later filed a lawsuit alleging constructive discharge. The appellate court analyzed whether the offer of resignation in lieu of a termination hearing could be considered constructive discharge.


Facts Surrounding DUI and Principal’s Continued Employment


The elementary school principal was pulled over by a state trooper and, after admitting she had been drinking, her blood alcohol level was recorded as more than four times the legal limit. However, she was released from police custody without being told her blood alcohol level.
The school superintendent became aware of the traffic stop and confronted the principal about the incident. He took issue with the fact she had not notified the school board that she had been stopped under suspicion of drunk driving. He told her she could either resign and receive a neutral reference or she would be terminated if DUI charges were filed against her. The principal was given one day to decide.


Principal Chooses Voluntary Resignation


The principal made the decision to resign although she did not discuss the legal situation with the attorney she had hired to represent her on the DUI. She met with the superintendent and offered her letter of resignation while commenting that she had not yet been charged. The superintendent then notified her that she had officially been charged with the DUI and handed her the paperwork.


Principal Files Lawsuit a Year Later


Almost a year after her resignation, the principal filed a lawsuit against the county and the school board members alleging various claims arising from, what she claimed, was her constructive discharge. The school board members were dismissed from the lawsuit because they are entitled to qualified immunity under the law. The trial court also granted the county school district summary judgment, dismissing the remaining claims, because it reasons she had voluntarily resigned. Of course, the principal appealed the dismissal.


Court’s Analysis of Constructive Discharge Claim


Following the analytical framework set out by our Eleventh Circuit, the Third Circuit determined that the principal’s resignation was voluntary and, therefore, not considered a constructive discharge. Specifically, the circuit court held that her resignation was not obtained through any type of coercion or under duress. Instead, she was offered an alternative - a pre-termination hearing. The court determined that she understood what her choice was and had an opportunity to consider her alternatives before making a decision to resign. Most importantly, the court pointed out that the standard for determining constructive discharge is objective, meaning that the question is not what the employee believed but “whether a reasonable person under the circumstances ‘would have felt compelled to resign.’”


If you feel you have been the victim of discrimination or retaliation in the workplace, or if you have any other questions regarding your employment rights, please contact the experienced Birmingham employment law attorneys at Wrady & Michel, LLC. You can contact us either online or by calling us at (205) 265-1880. We are here to serve you!