__ U.S. __ (2016), 14-613, Green v. Brennan

Docket Nº:14-613
Citation:__ U.S. __, 136 S.Ct. 1769, 195 L.Ed.2d 44, 84 U.S.L.W. 4325, 26 Fla.L.Weekly Fed. S 169
Opinion Judge:SOTOMAYOR, JUSTICE
Party Name:MARVIN GREEN, PETITIONER v. MEGAN J. BRENNAN, POSTMASTER GENERAL
Attorney:Brian Wolfman argued the cause for petitioner. Curtis E. Gannon argued the cause for respondent. Catherine M.A. Carroll, argued the cause for the United States, as amicus curiae, appointed by the court.
Judge Panel: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. ALITO, JUSTICE concurring in the judgment. THOMAS, JUSTICE dissenting.
Case Date:May 23, 2016
Court:United States Supreme Court
SUMMARY

Green complained to his employer, the U.S. Postal Service, that he was denied a promotion because he was black. His supervisors then accused him of the crime of intentionally delaying the mail. In a 2009 agreement, USPS agreed not to pursue criminal charges. Green agreed either to retire or to accept another position in a remote location. Green chose to retire. In 2010, 41 days after resigning... (see full summary)

 
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Page __

__ U.S. __ (2016)

136 S.Ct. 1769, 195 L.Ed.2d 44, 84 U.S.L.W. 4325, 26 Fla.L.Weekly Fed. S 169

MARVIN GREEN, PETITIONER

v.

MEGAN J. BRENNAN, POSTMASTER GENERAL

No. 14-613

United States Supreme Court

May 23, 2016

[136 S.Ct. 1771] Argued November 30, 2015

DECISION BELOW: 760 F.3d 1135

LOWER COURT CASE NUMBER: 13-1096

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

760 F.3d 1135, vacated and remanded.

SYLLABUS

[136 S.Ct. 1772] [195 L.Ed.2d 48] 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 [195 L.Ed.2d 49] 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, 125 S.Ct. 2444, 162 L.Ed.2d 390. 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, 124 S.Ct. 2342, 159 L.Ed.2d 204. 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 [136 S.Ct. 1773] little to further the limitations period's goals and actively negates [195 L.Ed.2d 50] 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, 101 S.Ct. 498, 66 L.Ed.2d 431. 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, 124 S.Ct. 2342, 159 L.Ed.2d 204. Nor was Green's resignation the mere inevitable consequence of the Postal Service's discriminatory conduct. Ricks, 449 U.S. 250, 101 S.Ct. 498, 66 L.Ed.2d 431, 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.

Brian Wolfman argued the cause for petitioner.

Curtis E. Gannon argued the cause for respondent.

Catherine M.A. Carroll, argued the cause for the United States, as amicus curiae, appointed by the court.

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 [136 S.Ct. 1774] 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 [195 L.Ed.2d 51] 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.

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