News flash: There’s life beyond the COVID-19 pandemic!

In fact, yesterday, the Connecticut Supreme Court released an entirely non-COVID-19 related decision on the topic of “constructive discharge”.

I’ve talked about constructive discharge in prior posts, but the new case clarifies nearly two decades of jurisprudence in the area.  Despite the lowering of the bar for employees to raise such claims, employees still have a significant burden to overcome.

First off – why is this important? Well, in discrimination cases, an employee has to show an “adverse employment action”.  Normally, that’s a termination of employment.  But sometimes employees quit.  Most of the time, that’s not enough to satisfy an “adverse employment action”.   But in some cases, the employees say that they were compelled to resign — in other words, they were “constructively discharged”.

The Supreme Court, in Karagozian v. USV Optical, Inc.  now says that to prove a constructive discharge, a plaintiff must allege three things:

  1. the employer intentionally created the complained of work atmosphere;
  2. the work atmosphere was so difficult or unpleasant that a reasonable person in the employee’s shoes would have felt compelled to resign; and,
  3. the plaintiff in fact resigned.

But what it does not require is an allegation that that the employer intended to force the employee to quit.  Rather, an employee need only allege that the employer intended to create the conditions that the plaintiff claims compelled the employee to quit.

The court said that confusion lied with some language from a prior decision. And to that language, the court said:

To clarify the intent element of a constructive discharge claim for future cases, the phrase under examination—‘‘[c]onstructive
discharge of an employee occurs when an employer, rather than directly discharging an individual, intentionally creates an intolerable
work atmosphere that forces an employee to quit involuntarily’’—should be understood to refer to the employer’s intent to create the intolerable work atmosphere itself

The court went on to state: “This standard does not require that the plaintiff allege facts to show that the employer intended to force the employee to resign, only that a reasonable employee would feel compelled to resign.”

It goes on to state:

The standard contains a subjective inquiry (did the employer intend to
create the working condition) and an objective inquiry (the impact the working conditions would have on a reasonable person). To evaluate the working conditions, we evaluate whether a reasonable person in the employee’s shoes would have felt compelled to resign.

Still, the Court said the “plaintiff’s complaint fails as a matter of law to allege that
the defendant created a work atmosphere so difficult or unpleasant that a reasonable person in the plaintiff’s shoes would have felt compelled to resign.”

The case will no doubt become the standard bearer for constructive discharge cases.  Will this lead to more cases being filed? We’ll see, but the fact that the court still dismissed the case after lowering the standard should give employers some reason to be optimistic.