Green v. Brennan

PETITIONER: Marvin Green
RESPONDENT: Megan J. Brennan, Postmaster General
LOCATION: Englewood, Colorado Post Office

DOCKET NO.: 14-613
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2016- )
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit

CITATION: 578 US (2016)
GRANTED: Apr 27, 2015
ARGUED: Nov 30, 2015
DECIDED: May 23, 2016

ADVOCATES:
Brian Wolfman - for the petitioner
Catherine M.A. Carroll - for Court-appointed amicux curiae
Curtis E. Gannon - Assistant to the Solicitor General, for the respondent

Facts of the case

Marvin Green began working for the United States Postal Service in 1973. In 2002, he became the postmaster at the Englewood, Colorado, post office. In 2008, a postmaster position opened in Boulder, and Green applied but did not receive the position. He filed a formal Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) charge regarding the denial of his application, and the charge was settled. In 2009, Green filed an informal EEO charge and alleged that his supervisor and supervisor’s replacement had been retaliating against him for his prior EEO activity. Throughout that year, Green was subject to internal Postal Service investigations including a threat of criminal prosecution. He ultimately signed an agreement that he would immediately give up his position and either retire or accept a much lower paying position. Green chose to retire and filed subsequent charges with the EEO Office, which dismissed his claim. Green then sued in district court and alleged, among other claims, that he had been constructively discharged. The district court held that Green’s constructive discharge claim was barred because he did not contact an EEO counselor within 45 days of signing the agreement, which was the last allegedly discriminatory act, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed.

Question

Under federal employment discrimination law, does the filing period for a constructive discharge claim begin to run at the time of the employer’s last allegedly discriminatory act?

Media for Green v. Brennan

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 30, 2015 in Green v. Brennan

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - May 23, 2016 in Green v. Brennan

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Today's orders of the Court have been duly entered and certified and filed with the clerk.

Justice Sotomayor has our opinion in case 14-613, Green versus Brennan.

Sonia Sotomayor:

This case comes to us from the Tenth Circuit.

Marvin Green, a former employee of the U.S. Postal Service and a black man, sued the Postal Service for discriminating against him in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

According to Green, in December 2008, his supervisors retaliated against him for complaining of racial discrimination.

They forced Green to agree either to retire or to accept less pay and move from his post in the suburbs of Denver, Colorado to the relatively remote town of Wamsutter, Wyoming.

A couple of months later, in February 2009, Green told the Postal Service he would retire.

He sued the service alleging the retaliation against him left no reasonable choice but to quit.

This theory of discrimination is called a constructive discharge.

The employee's decision to quit under intolerable discriminatory conditions is treated as though the employer actually fired him.

The District Court dismissed Green's case on the ground that he waited too long to start the process of filing a lawsuit.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed.

A Federal Regulation 29 C.F.R. §1614.105 requires federal employees, like postal workers, to contact a discrimination counselor at their workplace within 45 days of “the matter alleged to be discriminatory” before they can sue.

The Tenth Circuit held that this time limit began running in December 2008 when the Postal Service allegedly forced Green to sign their agreement.

According to the Tenth Circuit, Green's lawsuit was untimely because he did not contact the counselor until March 22, 2009 after the 45 day limitations period expired.

The Court rejected Green's argument that the limitations period did not begin to run until February 9, 2009 when Green told the Postal Service he was going to retire and not move to Wyoming, which would have made his lawsuit timely.

The Court held that an employee's resignation in a constructive discharge case is not part of the matter alleged to be discriminatory that triggers the limitations period.

We granted certiorari to resolve a circuit split on whether an employee's resignation is part of the matter alleged to be discriminatory in a constructive discharge case.

We hold that it is part of the matter alleged to be discriminatory.

The limitations period therefore does not begin to run on a constructive discharge claim until the employee tells his employer that he is resigning.

We reach this conclusion by applying this Court standard rule for interpreting a limitations period.

The period commences only after a plaintiff has a complete and present cause of action.

Applying that standard rule makes sense here for three reasons.

First, an employee who claims he was constructively discharged does not have a complete and present cause of action that is he cannot actually sue for constructive discharge until he tells his employer he is quitting.

Second, nothing in the text of the Federal Regulation or Discrimination Law more generally suggests an intent to displace the standard rule.

Third, there is no good practical reason to start the limitations period running on an employee's constructive discharge claim before he resigns.

We, therefore, vacate the judgment of the Tenth Circuit but even under the rule we announce the parties’ dispute whether Green gave notice of his resignation in December of 2008 when he signed the agreement making his claim untimely or in February 2009 when he submitted his retirement paperwork making his claim timely.

We take no position on this factual dispute here and leave it to the Tenth Circuit to resolve that issue on remand.

Judge Alito has filed an opinion concurring in the judgment.

Justice Thomas has filed a dissenting opinion.