Federal Court Over Wisconsin Rejects Claim that Employee Had To Quit Because of Discrimination Because Workplace Was Not Unbearable

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, a Federal court, threw out a jury verdict in favor of an employee on a discrimination claim because the court found that the workplace conduct was not so unbearable or intolerable that a reasonable person would be forced to quit. Chapin quit his job after the employer threatened to fire him if he did not withdraw a complaint of discrimination that the had pending against a former employer (related to his current employer). Chapin said he quit because of the threat. Subsequently, other representatives of the employer contacted the employee to say he could still have his job and that he would not be fired. The employee decided not to go back to the job because of the threat. The employee claimed that his resignation was really a “constructive termination,” meaning that he quit due to the employer’s conduct—the threat. “Constructive discharge” is is a recognized theory of recovery under the law, and it occurs when the employee shows that he or she was forced to resign because his or her working conditions, from the standpoint of the reasonable employee, had become unbearable. The Seventh Circuit threw out the jury’s finding because it said that the threat, which was essentially withdrawn, did not satisfy either of the two tests for a claim of constructive discharge.

Under the first test for constructive discharge, an employee must have resigned due to discriminatory harassment that rises to some degree above that which is required to have a hostile work environment. It must essentially be extra hostile, so to speak (my words, not the court’s). This is meant to encourage employers to fix the problem without making it liable for a constructive discharge before it has the opportunity to fix it.

The second test for constructive discharge is when an employer acts in a manner so as to have communicated to a reasonable employee that he or she will be terminated. Here, the employee is simply quitting before the axe falls. The court still requires the employee to show that the working conditions were intolerable at the time for reasons other than the looming termination.

In both tests, the court is looking for a hostile environment based on a protected characteristic like age, race, religion, gender, etc., or conduct in retaliation for having opposed discrimination or participated in some procedure of enforcing the non-discrimination laws. This is the key connection to the discrimination laws that makes the conduct actionable in the first place.

In Chapin’s case, the Seventh Circuit found that Chapin did not show that the workplace was so intolerable that a reasonable person would not continue working there. The Court found significant that the threat was withdrawn, the employer did not indicate that the threat would be carried out imminently, and that the employee then chose not to return to work when the threat no longer existed.