Her resignation letter described a “great experience” at work. Then she sued for hostile-environment constructive discharge.

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Fred the Oyster [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

One of the first hits when you Google ‘resignation letter’ is this career advice from Monster. The job board offers some tips for crafting a letter of resignation, among them: a statement of intent that you will be leaving your job, the date of your last day on the job, and your contact info. One of the optional items Monster suggests including is a highlight of your time there.

Monster’s advice is pretty spot on. Except, that is, when the individual later decides to assert claims of hostile work environment and constructive discharge.

Because, as you’ll find out in this post, nothing undermines those claims like a thoughtful resignation letter.

From rising star to lawsuit.

This recent Fourth Circuit opinion addresses claims of race and gender discrimination. The plaintiff is an African American woman who, over the course of seven years received several promotions and other honors within the organization. But despite her successes, the plaintiff experienced problems at work. First, she alleges she was mistreated in comparison to white, male employees. I’m not going to focus on that in this post. Instead, I want to address her other claims; namely, that white, male co-workers made racially insensitive and offensive comments to her (hostile work environment). Indeed, she claims it got so bad that she was forced to resign (constructive discharge).

Hostile-Environment Constructive Discharge

To establish a hostile-environment constructive discharge claim, a plaintiff must show the requirements of both a hostile work environment and a constructive discharge claim. Among other things, she must show that the harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of employment and create an abusive atmosphere. A South Carolina federal court dismissed the hostile-environment constructive discharge claim at summary judgment based on the severe and pervasive requirement for a hostile work environment claim.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit took a slightly different approach. It noted that a plaintiff asserting a combined hostile-environment constructive discharge claim must establish that her working conditions were so intolerable that a reasonable employee would have been compelled to resign.

Enter the resignation letter.

And cue the Fourth Circuit:

And while we must consider the evidence in the light most favorable to [the plaintiff], the evidence she offered about the conditions at [work] does not rise to the level of intolerability required by Supreme Court and Fourth Circuit precedent cited above. The conditions, while no doubt frustrating and unpleasant to [the plaintiff], cannot, from an objective perspective, be construed to leave her no choice but to resign. In fact, [the plaintiff] says as much in her resignation letter. There, she said her time [working for the defendant], despite challenges, had been “on the whole, satisfying and productive.” She even called her tenure at [the company] a “great experience.” 

For these reasons alone; i.e., the plaintiff’s resignation letter, the Fourth Circuit concluded that the plaintiff had “not presented sufficient evidence to meet her burden of establishing that her working conditions were so intolerable that a reasonable person would have felt compelled to resign.”

Employer takeaways.

I actually had a case like this before; except, it wasn’t so much the substance of the resignation letter that blew up the plaintiff’s hostile-environment constructive discharge claim, but because he gave two weeks’ notice. In other words, if work is that bad, who the heck offers to stay around for an extra two weeks, rather than leave immediately?

Anyway, not that you’ll encounter a situation like either of these, but if you find yourself defending a hostile-environment constructive discharge claim, don’t forget to review the resignation letter.

It could be your ticket to victory.




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