Overview of the Constructive Discharge Doctrine

posted by Neil Klingshirn  |  Sep 1, 2009 3:18 PM [EST]  |  applies to Ohio

A constructive discharge describes an employee's decision to resign because the employer made the terms and conditions of employment so miserable that reasonable people would resign. Under those circumstances, the law treats the resignation as though it were an actual or "constructive" discharge.
The constructive discharge doctrine exists because employees who voluntarily quit their jobs generally cannot pursue claims for unlawful discharge or recover unemployment compensation benefits. Employment law typically asks whether the reason for an employee’s discharge was prohibited.  If the employee was not discharged but instead quit, then there was no unlawful discharge. Similarly, unemployment compensation provides benefits for individuals who lose their jobs through no fault of their own. Therefore, a voluntary resignation will typically disqualify an employee from receiving unemployment compensation benefits.

Constructive Discharge and Voluntary Resignations

A “constructive discharge” describes employees who in fact quit, but did so under circumstances where the terms and conditions of their s employment were so difficult or unpleasant that a reasonable person in their shoes would have felt compelled to quit.  To prove a constructive discharge, most courts require proof that:
  1. the terms and conditions of employment were so difficult or unpleasant that a reasonable person would have felt compelled to quit;
  2. the employer made the conditions difficult or unpleasant; and
  3. the possibility of the employee quitting was a foreseeable result of the difficult or unpleasant conditions.
Some courts also require proof that the employer intended for the employee to quit. 

As a result of the constructive discharge doctrine, an employer cannot avoid liability for an unlawful termination by making employees so miserable they will quit.  Similarly, an employer cannot decide to terminate an employee and escape responsibility by persuading the employee to "resign" to avoid the stigma of being fired. Swink v. Greater Cleveland RTA, 2009-Ohio-6105 (8th App. Dist.).

Constructive Discharge is not a Claim

Importantly, a constructive discharge is not a claim by itself.  It merely changes a resignation into a discharge for employment law purposes.  Whether or not the constructive discharge is lawful still depends on the employer’s motivation for forcing the employee to quit. 

For example, an employee who quits to get away from the sexually hostile environment created by her supervisor has a claim for the emotional damage caused by the hostile environment during her employment.  However, since she resigned, she must prove the additional element of constructive discharge to recover her lost wages and benefits from the loss of the job.  If she proves sexual harassment but cannot prove circumstances so unpleasant or difficult that they amount to a constructive discharge, she will not be able to recover damages for the loss of employment.

The concept of a constructive discharge runs throughout employment law and appears wherever an employee may have a claim arising out of a loss of employment. This includes unemployment compensation proceedings, where the constructive discharge concept may be referred to as "just cause” to quit.

posted by Neil Klingshirn  |  Sep 1, 2009 3:18 PM [EST]  |  applies to Ohio

Related MEL Content

Questions & Answersmore »

Have an Employment Law question?

Contact The Author

Neil Klingshirn

Neil Klingshirn
AV rated Super Lawyer and Employment Law Specialist
Independence, OH
Phone: 216-382-2500