Constructive Dismissal Defenses

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 What Is Constructive Dismissal?

Constructive dismissal is when an employer creates or permits working conditions that are so poor that they cause an employee to quit their job. This must be done deliberately by the employer. In other words, the employer must have created or permitted the working environment to make the employee resign. This is comparable to a wrongful termination case, as the worker did not willfully resign but was forced to do so due to the working conditions.

Some constructive dismissal cases result from employment discrimination, sexual harassment, denial of benefits, wage/hour disputes, or retaliation against an employee who has filed a complaint about a violation. Constructive dismissal is occasionally called constructive discharge.

How Is Constructive Dismissal Proven?

Liability for constructive dismissal typically requires proof that:

  • The employer acted knowingly and willfully in allowing or creating the work conditions.
  • The work conditions caused damages to the plaintiff.
  • The plaintiff resigned shortly after the conduct happened or while the conduct was ongoing, therefore showing that the conditions were the cause of the resignation.
  • A reasonable individual would have quit their position if faced with comparable conditions.

It is essential to mention that the worker’s behavior is not an issue when establishing constructive dismissal. On the other hand, the worker’s behavior can occasionally lessen liability (for example, if their actions led to their resignation or an actual termination).

What Are Some Defenses to Constructive Dismissal?

There may be some defenses to constructive dismissal claims. These may include:

  • The employer has acted strictly within their rights as stated in an employment contract
  • Lack of evidence to back the claim
  • No link between the employer’s actions and the worker’s resignation (for example, if the employer did not intend to have the worker quit but was merely negligent in allowing the conditions)
  • Employee fraud (i.e., the employee has faked info to make it seem as if they were forced to resign)

As mentioned above, the employee’s conduct can occasionally lessen the employer’s liability.

What Are Protected Activities in Employment Law?

Workers are protected by law for reporting activities that happen in the workplace, including:

It is critical to mention that the list above does not include every type of protected activity an employee may report. Those listed above are the main activities discussed and protected by federal law. There may also be other protected activities found in state employment laws and based upon the circumstances of each case.

What Is Wrongful Termination?

Unfair or wrongful termination happens when an employer illegally fires an employee from their position. The majority of employees are at-will employees, which means that their employer is legally entitled to terminate their employment at any time and for any reason.

This means that the employer is entitled to terminate the at-will employment arrangement for any reason or even for no reason. An at-will employee is also allowed to leave their job at any time, for any reason, or no reason.

There are, nevertheless, regulations in place which protect workers. If an employer breaks these laws when terminating an employee, it is considered wrongful termination.

Examples of unfair or wrongful termination may include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Discrimination;
  • Retaliation;
  • Breach of good faith and fair dealing;
  • Violation of public policy; and
  • Family or medical leave.

If an individual’s employer terminates them based upon their belonging to a protected class, it is considered discrimination and, thus, wrongful termination. Protected classes include:

  • Race or color;
  • National origin;
  • Sex;
  • Religion;
  • Age;
  • Disability;
  • Pregnancy; and
  • Sexual orientation.

Workers who report their employer for a workplace violation are legally protected from retaliation. If an employer responds to the employee’s actions by terminating their employment, it is deemed wrongful termination and is forbidden.

It is also a breach of good faith and fair dealing when an employer terminates an employee. For instance, it is deemed wrongful termination if an employer terminates an employee for a fabricated reason.

In some circumstances, a termination may be a violation of public policy. For instance, if an employer terminates an employee due to membership in a recognized political party or group, it may be a wrongful termination.

If an employee has to take time off for extended medical leave, including caring for a sick loved one or taking maternal or paternal leave, they are protected under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Under the FMLA, workers are entitled to unpaid leave, and their job must be there when they return. If an employer terminates an employee due to taking off for medical reasons, it may be deemed wrongful termination.

When Is Retaliation Unlawful?

To reiterate, most employees in the United States are considered at-will employees. This means their position will last for an unidentified amount of time instead of independent contractors. An employer can terminate an at-will employee with or without cause.

The term without cause means that an employee may be terminated for any reason or no reason, so long as the reason is not unlawful or illegal. Because retaliatory discharge is an unlawful form of termination, it is illegal regardless of whether the person is an at-will employee or an independent contractor.

Additionally, most state and federal laws prohibit an employer from terminating an employee who files a complaint about harassment or discrimination. These protections extend to any location where an employee makes their complaint, including at:

  • The company’s Human Resources department;
  • A state employment agency; or
  • A federal government office.

For example, suppose an employee has a complaint regarding discriminatory practices. In that case, they will be required to file a report with a state or federal office, such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The agency will then review the employee’s complaint and investigate the employer’s conduct. In some cases, this will require the full cooperation of all employees within the company.

If an employee’s co-worker supports the complaint during the investigation, an employer cannot terminate the co-worker for cooperating with the EEOC. If the co-worker is terminated due to cooperation with the investigation, it will be considered an act of retaliatory discharge.

Some jurisdictions also offer protections for an employee who files a workers’ compensation claim. An employer is forbidden from terminating an employee for seeking workers’ compensation.

If an employer terminates the employee for seeking this benefit, it is a retaliatory action, and the worker’s termination will be deemed illegal. If this happens, the employee may bring legal action against the employer.

Can I File a Claim for Wrongful Termination?

Yes, it may be possible to file a claim for wrongful termination. If an individual has faced wrongful termination, their first step should be to contact their employer’s Human Resources department. It is essential to mention that an individual will generally be required to exhaust all available administrative remedies before moving forward with any legal action.

Should I Hire a Lawyer for Help with Constructive Dismissal Defenses?

Constructive dismissal cases can often involve some severe claims. You may need to hire a wrongful termination lawyer if you need help defending against any types of constructive dismissal claims. Your attorney can help you research the issue and represent you if you need to appear in court. Also, if you have any questions or concerns, your attorney can provide you with a response to your inquiry.

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