Explaining Constructive Discharge: What It Is, Examples and How to Prove It
You left your job because it became impossible to stay. Now what?
Now it’s time to talk with a New Jersey employment law attorney about whether your employer violated your rights. If your previous employer broke the law and forced you to quit, you might have a constructive discharge claim.
At O’Connor, Parsons, Lane & Noble, we realize many people aren’t familiar with constructive discharge. We’re here to explain the issue and what you can do about it.
If you’re ready to learn more, contact us online or call 908-928-9200 to schedule a consultation.
What Is Constructive Discharge in New Jersey?
Constructive discharge means you resign from your job because the conditions at work have become so intolerable that any reasonable person would leave and look for a new position. Notice that the definition relies on a “reasonable person” standard, not based entirely on your personal opinion.
This situation isn’t the same as quitting. When you quit a job, you voluntarily leave. When you go through a constructive discharge, your actions are involuntary. Once you prove constructive discharge, the law looks at the situation as if you were forced out. Fired.
Constructive Discharge Examples
What does constructive discharge look like? It looks like a work environment so bad it becomes unbearable or even physically unsafe or mentally unhealthy.
A common reason for constructive discharge is an employer who won’t do anything about sexual harassment. Sexual harassment, whatever form it takes, can become intolerable when an employer takes no steps to address it.
Other Forms of Harassment
Harassment at work is illegal, even if it’s not sexual. Federal law and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD) prohibit discrimination at work, including harassment based on a protected class. A workplace can become toxic and unbearable due to persistent or egregious harassment.
Harassment is but one form of employment discrimination. Instead of harassment, your employer might make it impossible for you to complete your tasks or discriminate against you in terms of work assignments, responsibilities, hours, opportunities, and pay.
Despite several laws protecting employees against retaliation, many employers act out against workers who come forward about sexual harassment, discrimination, or another legal violation.
Hazardous Work Conditions
Your employer may provide an environment that is so dangerous you’re forced to leave.
Who Is Responsible for Intolerable Working Conditions?
Any person at an organization can create intolerable working conditions. It could be a supervisor, manager, coworker, independent contractor, or vendor. A person with authority over you doesn’t have to create the condition, although that’s common.
What’s important is that:
- You make your employer aware of the condition, and
- Your employer does not correct it.
If you’ve notified HR, the People Team, your manager, or whomever in leadership you can about the situation, and they do nothing about it, talk with a New Jersey wrongful termination lawyer. Your employer is responsible for stopping intolerable work conditions no matter who creates them.
Do I Have a NJ Constructive Discharge Case?
Whether you have a strong legal case depends, most of all, on whether your employer’s actions were illegal.
Retaliation for whistleblowing: against the law.
Sexual harassment: against the law.
A construction site that doesn’t adhere to health and safety standards: against the law.
But you may not have a case if you feel forced to resign due to personal circumstances. For example, maybe you thought your manager was a bully, but they didn’t harass or discriminate against you. Perhaps you couldn’t find child care, and your employer wouldn’t alter your schedule to help.
If your employer’s actions weren’t illegal, you probably don’t have a legal claim.
Give us a call right away if you were forced to leave your position. We’ll talk with you about your situation and whether your ex-employer violated any of your employment rights. If the organization violated the law, you might have a legal claim.
Should I Bring a Claim?
Whether or not you should file a claim based on constructive discharge, wrongful termination, or discrimination depends on the circumstances. When you leave your job because of intolerable work conditions, you don’t receive a severance package or, usually, unemployment benefits. As a result, you have no income until you find a new position, which can take months. However, if you win a constructive discharge case, you can get benefits and additional compensation.
Bringing a case against your ex-employer can do two things. It can give you the compensation you need to remain financially sound until you find a new position. It also forces the employer to improve working conditions, which benefits current and future employees. Nothing changes if no one comes forward.
How to Prove Constructive Discharge
Proving a constructive discharge is tough. You have the burden of proof. You have to establish that an illegal, intolerable condition existed, which your employer didn’t correct. If you can’t reach this burden, you won’t win.
Proving a constructive discharge claim also involves a higher standard than proving a hostile work environment for discrimination claims or proving you had good cause to leave work to get New Jersey unemployment benefits.
You’ll need evidence of several elements:
- There was discriminatory, retaliatory, or another illegal condition in the workplace, which targeted you;
- Any reasonable person would find the condition intolerable;
- Your employer failed to stop the condition; and
- The condition became so unbearable it forced you to resign.
The best evidence is documentation. Do you have copies of emails or reports you made about the workplace condition?
The second-best evidence is a witness. Do you know whom you spoke to and when about the condition? Do you know anyone who witnessed someone targeting you?
When Do I Have to File a Constructive Discharge Claim?
Don’t wait too long to talk with a NJ wrongful termination lawyer about what happened. It’s best to get started right away. If you want to file a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) claim, you typically have up to 180 days or 300 days. But if you work for the federal government, you have only 45 days to contact the EEOC.
You also can file a claim with the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights within 180 days. It’s important to talk with a lawyer about where to file and when.
Talk with an Employment Law Attorney in New Jersey
We always recommend consulting a lawyer before you walk off the job, although we know that isn’t always possible. If you’ve already left your position, give us a call at 908-928-9200 or reach out through our online form. Our team of employment attorneys has represented thousands of employees and recovered millions of dollars on their behalf, and we want to help you too.