When Can You File a Claim for Constructive Discharge as a Federal Employee?

May 24, 2024
The Law Firm of J.W. Stafford

Federal employees have clear legal rights. Among them, federal employees are entitled to a workplace free of harassment and discrimination, and they are entitled to reasonable accommodations for their disabling conditions and religious beliefs.

While some violations of federal employees’ rights will lead to wrongful termination, others will leave federal employees feeling like they have no choice but to resign. In this scenario, federal employees who choose to resign may have grounds to file a claim for “constructive discharge.”

Understanding What Constitutes (and What Doesn’t Constitute) a Constructive Discharge

Making a federal employee feel as though he or she has no choice but to resign violates the federal employee’s rights. It violates the Merit System Principles (MSPs); and, depending on the specific circumstances involved, it can violate a variety of federal statutes. With this in mind, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines a constructive discharge as follows:

“A discriminatory constructive discharge occurs when the employer discriminatorily creates working conditions that are so difficult, unpleasant, or intolerable that a reasonable person in the aggrieved person’s position would feel compelled to resign. In other words, the aggrieved person is essentially forced to resign under circumstances where the resignation is tantamount to the employer’s termination or discharge of the employee.”

It is important to keep in mind that while the EEOC’s definition refers specifically to a “discriminatory constructive discharge,” the federal definition of discrimination is extremely broad. While treating federal employees differently based on their age, gender identity, race or sexual orientation constitutes discrimination, harassment is a form of discrimination as well, and failing to provide reasonable accommodations is a form of discrimination under the Rehabilitation Act and Title VII. As a result, some potential grounds to file a constructive discharge claim as a former federal employee include:

  • Discrimination that makes working in your position untenable
  • Discrimination that results in unreasonable compensation based on your qualifications or inability to advance your career
  • Harassment or retaliation that makes your workdays intolerable
  • Denial of a reasonable accommodation that is necessary for you to work safely and comfortably
  • Denial of a reasonable accommodation that is necessary to practice your religion

We emphasize “potential” because constructive discharge cases are extremely fact-specific. Even if a prohibited personnel practice is discriminatory, this doesn’t necessarily mean that it justifies resignation and a subsequent claim for constructive discharge under federal law. In some cases, federal employees will need to seek alternate remedies through other means. In all cases, however, strict deadlines apply—so, if you think you may have a claim against the government, you should speak with a federal employment lawyer about your legal rights as soon as possible.

Coerced Retirement: If You Were “Essentially Forced to Retire” From the Federal Sector

In addition to prohibiting constructive discharge, federal law also prohibits coerced retirement. As the EEOC explains, “in coerced or involuntary retirement cases, the aggrieved person alleges that s/he was essentially forced to retire.” As the EEOC goes no to explain, “[d]iscriminatory coercion or involuntary retirement allegations are, if supported, tantamount to the employer discharging the employee.”

Similar to constructive discharge there are several potential grounds for filing a claim for coerced retirement. While many coerced retirement cases involve age-based discrimination (i.e., when a retirement-age federal employee is effectively pushed out in favor of promoting younger employees), coerced retirement cases can involve all other forms of discrimination as well.

Filing a Claim for Constructive Discharge (or Coerced Retirement) as a Former Federal Employee

In some respects, filing a constructive discharge claim (or a coerced retirement claim) as a former federal employee is no different from filing any other type of employment-related claim against the federal government. Generally speaking, the same deadlines and procedural requirements (and procedural protections) apply. However, there are also unique elements to these cases, and former federal employees seeking to pursue these claims must ensure that they take all of the necessary steps to bring their claims effectively. Some examples of these steps include:

  • Focus on the “Reasonable Person” Standard – When filing a constructive discharge claim, it isn’t enough to prove that you felt that you had no choice but to resign. Rather, you must be able to prove that a “reasonable person” in your shoes would have felt forced to resign as well. This is a critical distinction that has important implications for how you prepare your claim.
  • Document Your Claim – As with any type of federal employment-related claim, documentation is key. Various forms of evidence may be available to establish that you were constructively discharged—and one of the keys to success is to make sure you have the documentation you need to establish that you left an untenable work environment.
  • Decide What Remedies You Want to Seek – Before you file your constructive discharge claim, you will also need to decide what remedies you want to seek through the process. Are you interested in going back to work for the federal government under better conditions, or are you more interested in seeking damages and moving on?
  • File a “Mixed Case” Complaint – If you have standing to file a claim with the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), it may be in your best interests to file a “mixed case” complaint. This provides the opportunity to have your case heard by either the MSPB or the EEOC.
  • Prepare to Present Your Case to the MSPB and/or EEOC – Whether you need to argue your constructive discharge case before the MSPB or the EEOC, it will be critical to ensure that you are thoroughly prepared. This itself is a multi-step process, and to prepare your case effectively, you need to have a clear understanding of both the relevant facts and the relevant law.

Again, while these are some of the key steps for bringing a constructive discharge claim (or coerced retirement claim) against a federal agency, these are not all of the steps involved. To learn what you need to do to assert your legal rights, you should speak with a federal employment lawyer as soon as possible.

Request a Confidential Consultation at The Law Firm of J.W. Stafford

Do you need to know about filing a complaint for constructive discharge (or coerced retirement) against the federal government? If so, we can help, and we invite you to get in touch. To request a confidential consultation with a federal employment lawyer at The Law Firm of J.W. Stafford, please call 410-514-6099 or send us a confidential message online today.