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Green v. Brennan

United States Supreme Court

May 23, 2016

MARVIN GREEN, PETITIONER
v.
MEGAN J. BRENNAN, POSTMASTER GENERAL

          Argued November 30, 2015

         ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE TENTH CIRCUIT

         After petitioner Marvin Green complained to his employer, the United

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.

         Held:

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. Pp. 4–15.
(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. 6–8.
(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. 8–9.
(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.

          OPINION

          SOTOMAYOR JUSTICE

         Title 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).

         If an 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.

         We 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 resigns.

         I

         We 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.

         Green's 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.

         On 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.

         On 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.[1] He alleged that the choice he had been given effectively forced his resignation in violation of Title VII.

         Green 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 judgment.

         The 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.

         Two 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.[2] 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.[3]

         We 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 service.

         II

         Before 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).[4] The timeliness of Green's claim therefore turns on our interpretation of this EEOC regulation implementing Title VII.[5]

         Although 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.

         The 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).

         Applying 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 resigned.

         A

         The 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.

         The 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 142–143.

         A claim 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 relief.

         Under 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).

         In this 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.

         B

         Although 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 default rule.

         As 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).

         C

         Finally, 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 requirement").

         This 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.

         Moreover, 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 ...


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