A September 22, 2017 decision from the New Hampshire federal trial court of Karen Mead v. Fairpoint Communications, Inc. illustrates what an employee needs to prove when she sues her employer for wrongful termination when, in fact, the employee resigned. This is what is called a constructive discharge claim and the employee making such a claim must show that a reasonable person in her position would perceive the change in her work conditions so onerous, abusive, or unpleasant that a reasonable person in that employee’s position would have felt compelled to resign. In addition to that she would have to show that resignation was treated like a firing that would take the claim outside the employment at will relationship. In this case, Karen Mead alleged gender discrimination, hostile work environment, as well as equal pay act claims in this constructive discharge claim all of which Fairpoint attempted to get dismissed on summary judgment, yet the federal trial judge denied that motion. If she had been fired as a result of gender discrimination, she could seek damages for such a wrongful firing and therefore if she can prove she was constructively discharge because of gender discrimination she could also recover for such a wrongful firing. A summary judgment motion alleges that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that movant in this case, Fairpoint, is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. Fairpoint’s motion for summary judgment was denied. In denying that motion the Court did not find in favor of Karen Mead in the underlying claims, but found that she has the right to a trial in that there were genuine issues of material fact based upon the allegations she asserted.
Mead was a Senior Vice President for External Relations and High Speed Internet Development and while her organizational title and pay level remained unchanged, she described a continuous erosion of her authority, responsibilities, and professional standing in the company to the point that she was finally assigned a job that apparently, fell at the “director” level which position was paid five levels below her pay grade after she left it. The judge noted that Fairpoint offered numerous factually plausible, and perhaps credible, non-discriminatory business reasons to explain plaintiff’s seemingly deteriorating executive career (including that it was not deteriorating). However, given the facts pled and construed in favor of Mead, which is what is required in a motion for summary judgment, the Court found that a jury could find the proffered explanations were a mere pretext for gender discrimination.
In general, it is a challenge to convince a jury that an executive can quit a high-paying job and then make a constructive discharge claim against an employer. Again, the standard being that the change in working conditions were so onerous, abusive, or unpleasant that a reasonable person in that employee’s position would have felt compelled to resign. That is a tough standard and even if it met, the employee would still have to show that if you treat the resignation like a firing, the firing itself would have been unlawful. Gender discrimination is obviously unlawful.
J. Daniel Marr is a Director and Shareholder at Hamblett & Kerrigan, P.A. His legal practice includes counseling businesses and individuals on a variety of legal issues and advocating on their behalf. Attorney Marr is licensed and practices in both New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Attorney Marr can be reached at [email protected].