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Media Coverage

Justices, Reviving Employee's Race Claim, Open Wider Window to Sue

23 May 2016
The National Law Journal

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday gave plaintiffs in workplace discrimination cases more time to file complaints against their employers.

By a 7-1 vote, the court said the 45-day deadline for initiating a constructive-discharge claim can begin running from the day the employee resigns—not the day of the last discriminatory workplace incident.

“We are persuaded that the ‘matter alleged to be discriminatory’ in a constructive-discharge claim necessarily includes the employee’s resignation,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for the court in Green v. Brennan. “In the context of a constructive-discharge claim, a resignation is part of the ‘complete and present cause of action’ necessary before a limitations period ordinarily begins to run.”

The ruling came in a case brought by Marvin Green against his employer the U.S. Postal Service. Green, who worked for the Postal Service for 35 years, said he was denied a promotion because is black. He was the postmaster of Englewood, Colorado, and was passed over for the job in nearby Boulder. The Postal Service then accused him of the crime of delaying the mail.

Green ultimately signed an agreement to resign and filed a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission—41 days after resignation but 96 days after signing the agreement. Green then sued in federal court, but his claim was dismissed because he had not contacted the EEOC within 45 days of the   “matter alleged to be discriminatory.” The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit agreed.

Justice Clarence Thomas dissented, asserting that the majority’s interpretation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act was “atextual.” Thomas wrote, “The majority holds that a ‘matter alleged to be discriminatory’ includes a matter that is not ‘discriminatory’ at all: a federal employee’s decision to quit his job.”

Business advocates criticized the decision, which could enable lawsuits filed years after alleged discriminatory acts occur.

"The Supreme Court’s ruling today gives employees an unfair advantage over small business owners who will now have to defend themselves against exhausted lawsuits,” said Karen Harned, executive director of the legal center at the National Federation of Independence Business.

When the case reached the Supreme Court, the U.S. solicitor general agreed that an employee’s resignation was the act that began the statute of limitations. The court appointed Catherine Carroll of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr to argue in favor of the Tenth Circuit judgment.

In the ruling Monday, Sotomayor wrote that Carroll “ably discharged her duties.” Brian Wolfman of Stanford Law School represented Green.

"It is definitely a plaintiff-friendly decision, and a court-friendly decision too" because it clarifies the deadline for filing claims, Mayer Brown partner Brian Netter said. The deadline issue may seem trivial, Netter said, but "there have been a large number of dispositions" that depend on when the deadline clock starts ticking.

Reprinted with permission from the May 23, 2016 edition of The National Law Journal © 2016 ALM Properties, Inc. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.

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