November 30, 2015
OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE
petitioner Marvin Green complained to his employer, the
States Postal Service, that he was denied a promotion because
he was black, his supervisors accused him of the crime of
intentionally delaying the mail. In an agreement signed
December 16, 2009, the Postal Service agreed not to pursue
criminal charges, and Green agreed either to retire or to
accept another position in a remote location for much less
money. Green chose to retire and submitted his resignation
paperwork on February 9, 2010, effective March 31.
On March 22-41 days after resigning and 96 days after signing
the agreement-Green reported an unlawful constructive
discharge to an Equal Employment Opportunity counselor, an
administrative prerequisite to filing a complaint alleging
discrimination or retaliation in violation of Title VII of
the Civil Rights Act of 1964. See 29 CFR
§1614.105(a)(1). Green eventually filed suit in Federal
District Court, which dismissed his complaint as untimely
because he had not contacted the counselor within 45 days of
the "matter alleged to be discriminatory, "
ibid. The Tenth Circuit affirmed, holding that the
45-day limitations period began to run on December 16, the
date Green signed the agreement.
1. Because part of the "matter alleged to be
discriminatory" in a constructive-discharge claim is an
employee's resignation, the 45-day limitations period for
such action begins running only after an employee resigns.
(a) Where, as here, the regulatory text itself is not
unambiguously clear, the Court relies on the standard rule
for limitations periods, which provides that a limitations
period ordinarily begins to run " 'when the
plaintiff has a complete and present cause of action, '
" Graham County Soil & Water Conservation Dist.
v. United States ex rel. Wilson, 545 U.S. 409, 418.
Applied here, that rule offers three persuasive reasons to
include the employee's resignation in the limitations
period. Pp. 4–10.
(i) First, resignation is part of the "complete and
present cause of action" in a constructive-discharge
claim, which comprises two basic elements: discriminatory
conduct such that a reasonable employee would have felt
compelled to resign and actual resignation, Pennsylvania
State Police v. Suders, 542 U.S. 129, 148. Until he
resigns, an employee does not have a "complete and
present cause of action" for constructive discharge.
Under the standard rule, only after the employee has a
complete and present cause of action does that trigger the
limitations period. In this respect, a constructive-discharge
claim is no different from an ordinary wrongful-discharge
claim, which accrues only after the employee is fired. Pp.
(ii) Second, although the standard rule may be subject to
exception where clearly indicated by the text creating the
limitations period, nothing in Title VII or the regulation
suggests such displacement. To the contrary, it is natural to
read "matter alleged to be discriminatory" as
including the allegation forming the basis of the claim,
which confirms the standard rule's applicability. Pp.
(iii) Third, practical considerations also confirm the merit
of applying the standard rule. Starting the clock ticking
before a plaintiff can actually file suit does little to
further the limitations period's goals and actively
negates Title VII's remedial structure. A
"limitations perio[d] should not commence to run so soon
that it becomes difficult for a layman to invoke the
protection of the civil rights statutes." Delaware
State College v. Ricks, 449 U.S. 250, 262, n. 16.
Nothing in the regulation suggests a two-step process in
which an employee would have to file a complaint after an
employer's discriminatory conduct, only to be forced to
amend that complaint to allege constructive discharge after
resigning. Requiring that a complaint be filed before
resignation occurs would also, e.g., ignore that an
employee may not be in a position to leave his job
immediately. Pp. 9– 10.
(b) Arguments against applying the standard rule here are
rejected. Suders stands not for the proposition that
a constructive discharge is tantamount to a formal discharge
for remedial purposes only, but for the rule that
constructive discharge is a claim distinct from the
underlying discriminatory act, 542 U.S., at 149. Nor was
Green's resignation the mere inevitable consequence of
the Postal Service's discriminatory conduct.
Ricks, 449 U.S. 250, distinguished. Finally, the
important goal of promoting conciliation through early,
informal contact with a counselor does not warrant treating a
constructive discharge different from an actual discharge for
purposes of the limitations period. Pp. 10–15. 2. A
constructive-discharge claim accrues-and the limitations
period begins to run-when the employee gives notice of his
resignation, not on the effective date thereof. The Tenth
Circuit is left to determine, in the first instance, the date
that Green in fact gave notice. P. 16.
760 F.3d 1135, vacated and remanded.
Sotomayor, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which
Roberts, C. J., and Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan,
JJ., joined. Alito, J., filed an opinion concurring in the
judgment. Thomas, J., filed a dissenting opinion.
VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 78 Stat. 253, as
amended, 42 U.S.C. §2000e et seq., prohibits
employers from discriminating on the basis of race, color,
religion, sex, or national origin, or retaliating against
their employees for opposing or seeking relief from such
discrimination. Before a federal civil servant can sue his
employer for violating Title VII, he must, among other
things, "initiate contact" with an Equal Employment
Opportunity counselor at his agency "within 45 days of
the date of the matter alleged to be discriminatory." 29
CFR §1614.105(a)(1) (2015).
employee claims he has been fired for discriminatory reasons,
the "matter alleged to be discriminatory" includes
the discharge itself and the 45-day limitations period begins
running only after the employee is fired.
address here when the limitations period begins to run for an
employee who was not fired, but resigns in the face of
intolerable discrimination-a "constructive"
discharge. We hold that, in such circumstances, the
"matter alleged to be discriminatory" includes the
employee's resignation, and that the 45-day clock for a
constructive discharge begins running only after the employee
recite the following facts in the light most favorable to
petitioner Marvin Green, against whom the District Court
entered summary judgment. Green is a black man who worked for
the Postal Service for 35 years. In 2008, he was serving as
the postmaster for Englewood, Colorado when he applied for a
promotion to the vacant postmaster position in nearby
Boulder. He was passed over. Shortly thereafter, Green
complained he was denied the promotion because of his race.
relations with his supervisors crumbled following his
complaint. Tensions peaked on December 11, 2009, when two of
Green's supervisors accused him of intentionally delaying
the mail-a criminal offense. See 18 U.S.C. §1703. They
informed Green that the Postal Service's Office of the
Inspector General (OIG) was investigating the charge and that
OIG agents had arrived to interview him as part of their
investigation. After Green met with the OIG agents, his
supervisors gave him a letter reassigning him to off-duty
status until the matter was resolved. Even though the OIG
agents reported to Green's supervisors that no further
investigation was warranted, the supervisors continued to
represent to Green that "the OIG is all over this"
and that the "criminal" charge "could be a
life changer." App. 53.
December 16, 2009, Green and the Postal Service signed an
agreement whose meaning remains disputed. Relevant here, the
Postal Service promised not to pursue criminal charges in
exchange for Green's promise to leave his post in
Englewood. The agreement also apparently gave Green a choice:
effective March 31, 2010, he could either retire or report
for duty in Wamsutter, Wyoming- population 451-at a salary
considerably lower than what he earned in his Denver suburb.
Green chose to retire and submitted his resignation to the
Postal Service on February 9, 2010, effective March 31.
March 22-41 days after submitting his resignation paperwork
to the Postal Service on February 9, but 96 days after
signing the settlement agreement on December 16-Green
contacted an Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) counselor to
report an unlawful constructive discharge. He contended that
his supervisors had threatened criminal charges and
negotiated the resulting agreement in retaliation for his
original complaint. He alleged that the choice he had been
given effectively forced his resignation in violation of
eventually filed suit in the Federal District Court for the
District of Colorado, alleging, inter alia, that the
Postal Service constructively discharged him. The Postal
Service moved for summary judgment, arguing that Green had
failed to make timely contact with an EEO counselor within 45
days of the "matter alleged to be discriminatory, "
as required by 29 CFR §1614.105(a)(1). The District
Court granted the Postal Service's motion for summary
Tenth Circuit affirmed, holding that the "matter alleged
to be discriminatory" encompassed only the Postal
Service's discriminatory actions and not Green's
independent decision to resign on February 9. Green v.
Donahue, 760 F.3d 1135 (2014). Therefore, the 45-day
limitations period started running when both parties signed
the settlement agreement on December 16, 2009. Accordingly,
because 96 days passed between the agreement and when Green
contacted an EEO counselor on March 22, 2010, his
constructive-discharge claim was time barred.
other Courts of Appeals agree with the Tenth Circuit's
view that the limitations period begins to run for a
constructive-discharge claim after the employer's last
discriminatory act. As the Tenth Circuit recognized, however,
other Courts of Appeals have held that the limitations period
for a constructive-discharge claim does not begin to run
until the employee resigns.
granted certiorari to resolve this split. 575 U.S. ___
(2015). Because no party here supports the Tenth
Circuit's holding that an employee's resignation is
not part of the "matter alleged to be discriminatory,
" we appointed Catherine M. A. Carroll to defend that
aspect of the judgment below. 576 U.S. ___ (2015). She has
ably discharged her duties and the Court thanks her for her
a federal civil servant can sue his employer in court for
discriminating against him in violation of Title VII, he must
first exhaust his administrative remedies. 42 U.S.C.
§2000e–16(c). To exhaust those remedies, the Equal
Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has promulgated
regulations that require, among other things, that a federal
employee consult with an EEO counselor prior to filing a
discrimination lawsuit. Specifically, he "must initiate
contact with a Counselor within 45 days of the date of the
matter alleged to be discriminatory or, in the case of
personnel action, within 45 days of the effective date of the
action." 29 CFR §1614.105(a)(1). The timeliness of
Green's claim therefore turns on our interpretation of
this EEOC regulation implementing Title VII.
we begin our interpretation of the regulation with its text,
the text in this case is not particularly helpful. Nowhere
does §1614.105 indicate whether a "matter alleged
to be discriminatory" in a constructive-discharge claim
includes the employee's resignation, as Green contends,
or only the employer's discriminatory conduct, as
amica contends. The word "matter" simply
means "an allegation forming the basis of a claim or
defense, " Black's Law Dictionary 1126 (10th ed.
2014)-a term that could readily apply to a
discrimination-precipitated resignation. So the "matter
alleged to be discriminatory" could refer to all of the
allegations underlying a claim of discrimination, including
the employee's resignation, or only to those allegations
concerning the employer's discriminatory conduct. We
therefore must turn to other canons of interpretation.
most helpful canon in this context is "the 'standard
rule'" for limitations periods. Graham County
Soil & Water Conservation Dist. v. United States ex rel.
Wilson, 545 U.S. 409, 418 (2005). Ordinarily, a
"'limitations period commences when the plaintiff
has a complete and present cause of action.'"
Ibid. "[A] cause of action does not become
'complete and present' for limitations purposes until
the plaintiff can file suit and obtain relief." Bay
Area Laundry and Dry Cleaning Pension Trust Fund v. Ferbar
Corp. of Cal., 522 U.S. 192, 201 (1997). Although the
standard rule can be displaced such that the limitations
period begins to run before a plaintiff can file a suit, we
"will not infer such an odd result in the absence of any
such indication" in the text of the limitations period.
Reiter v. Cooper, 507 U.S. 258, 267 (1993).
this default rule, we are persuaded that the "matter
alleged to be discriminatory" in a
constructive-discharge claim necessarily includes the
employee's resignation for three reasons. First, 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. Second, nothing in the regulation creating the
limitations period here, §1614.105, clearly indicates an
intent to displace this standard rule. Third, practical
considerations confirm the merit of applying the standard
rule here. We therefore interpret the term "matter
alleged to be discriminatory" for a
constructive-discharge claim to include the date Green
standard rule for limitations periods requires us first to
determine what is a "complete and present cause of
action" for a constructive-discharge claim. We hold that
such a claim accrues only after an employee resigns.
constructive-discharge doctrine contemplates a situation in
which an employer discriminates against an employee to the
point such that his "working conditions become so
intolerable that a reasonable person in the employee's
position would have felt compelled to resign."
Pennsylvania State Police v. Suders, 542 U.S. 129,
141 (2004). When the employee resigns in the face of such
circumstances, Title VII treats that resignation as
tantamount to an actual discharge. Id., at
of constructive discharge therefore has two basic elements. A
plaintiff must prove first that he was discriminated against
by his employer to the point where a reasonable person in his
position would have felt compelled to resign. Id.,
at 148. But he must also show that he actually resigned.
Ibid. ("A constructive discharge involves
both an employee's decision to leave and
precipitating conduct . . ." (emphasis added)). In other
words, an employee cannot bring a constructive-discharge
claim until he is constructively discharged. Only
after both elements are satisfied can he file suit to obtain
the standard rule for limitations periods, the limitations
period should begin to run for a constructive-discharge claim
only after a plaintiff resigns. At that point-and not
before-he can file a suit for constructive discharge. So only
at that point-and not before-does he have a "complete
and present" cause of action. And only after he has a
complete and present cause of action does a limitations
period ordinarily begin to run. Cf. Mac's Shell
Service, Inc. v. Shell Oil Products Co., 559 U.S. 175,
189– 190 (2010) (the limitations period for a
constructive termination of a franchise agreement starts
running when the agreement is constructively terminated).
respect, a claim that an employer constructively discharged
an employee is no different from a claim that an employer
actually discharged an employee. An ordinary wrongful
discharge claim also has two basic elements: discrimination
and discharge. See St. Mary's Honor Center v.
Hicks, 509 U.S. 502, 506 (1993); 1 B. Lindemann, P.
Grossman, & C. Weirich, Employment Discrimination Law
21–33 (5th ed. 2012) (Lindemann) ("The sine qua
non of a discharge case is, of course, a discharge").
The claim accrues when the employee is fired. At that
point-and not before-he has a "complete and present
cause of action." So at that point-and not before-the
limitations period begins to run. With claims of either
constructive discharge or actual discharge, the standard rule
thus yields the same result: a limitations period should not
begin to run until after the discharge itself. In light of
this rule, we interpret the term "matter alleged to be
discriminatory" in §1614.105 to refer to all of the
elements that make up a constructive-discharge
claim-including an employee's resignation.
the standard rule dictates that a limitations period should
commence only after a claim accrues, there is an exception to
that rule when the text creating the limitations period
clearly indicates otherwise. See, e.g., Dodd v. United
States, 545 U.S. 353, 360 (2005). Nothing in the text of
Title VII or the regulation, however, suggests that the
standard rule should be displaced here. To the contrary, the
language of the regulation confirms our application of the
noted previously, the word "matter" generally
refers to "an allegation forming the basis of a claim or
defense." Black's Law Dictionary 1126. The natural
reading of "matter alleged to be discriminatory"
thus refers to the allegation forming the basis of the
discrimination claim- here, a claim of constructive
discharge. And as discussed above, a constructive discharge
claim requires two basic allegations: discriminatory conduct
by the employer that leads to resignation of the employee. So
long as those acts are part of the same, single claim under
consideration, they are part of the "matter alleged to
be discriminatory, " whatever the role of discrimination
in each individual element of the claim. Cf. National
Railroad Passenger Corporation v. Morgan, 536 U.S. 101,
115–121 (2002) (holding that a hostile-work-environment
claim is a single "unlawful employment practice"
that includes every act composing that claim, whether those
acts are independently actionable or not).
we are also persuaded that applying the standard rule for
limitations periods to constructive discharge makes a good
deal of practical sense. Starting the limitations clock
ticking before a plaintiff can actually sue for
constructive discharge serves little purpose in furthering
the goals of a limitations period-and it actively negates
Title VII's remedial structure. Cf. Zipes v. Trans
World Airlines, Inc., 455 U.S. 385, 398 (1982) (holding
that the Title VII limitations period should be construed to
"honor the remedial purpose of the legislation as a
whole without negating the particular purpose of the filing
Court has recognized "that the limitations perio[d]
should not commence to run so soon that it becomes difficult
for a layman to invoke the protection of the civil rights
statutes." Delaware State College v. Ricks, 449
U.S. 250, 262, n. 16 (1980). If the limitations period begins
to run following the employer's precipitating
discriminatory conduct, but before the employee's
resignation, the employee will be forced to file a
discrimination complaint after the employer's conduct and
later amend the complaint to allege constructive discharge
after he resigns. Nothing in the regulation suggests it
intended to require a layperson, while making this difficult
decision, to follow such a two-step process in order to
preserve any remedy if he is constructively discharged.
forcing an employee to lodge a complaint before he can bring
a claim for constructive discharge places that employee in a
difficult situation. An employee who suffered discrimination
severe enough that a reasonable person in his shoes would
resign might nevertheless force himself to tolerate that
discrimination for a period of time. He might delay his
resignation until he can afford to leave. Or he might delay
in light of other circumstances, as in the case of a teacher
waiting until the end of the school year to resign. Tr. 17.
And, if he feels he must stay for a period of time, he may be
reluctant to complain ...