Moving On: Intolerable Conditions And Constructive Discharge

There are the usual complaints about work: stolen lunches, loud cubicle neighbors, and whether the temperature is too hot or too cold. Some complaints arise to a higher level where it is impossible to continue working. Verbal abuse, discrimination, and hostility often lead employees to leave jobs in order to preserve mental or physical health.

If bad working conditions drive you to quit, it affects your eligibility for unemployment. It is important to show good cause for leaving a job for that reason as well as for any employment cases you may litigate. Read this overview to learn more about intolerable conditions and constructive discharge.

What constitutes intolerable conditions?

Intolerable conditions go beyond the usual work annoyances. Most commonly discussed is the hostile workplace idea where abusive treatment, sexual harassment, discrimination, or use of federally guaranteed protections lead to adverse reactions. People report hostility for expressing rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act, Americans with Disabilities Act, and whistleblower statutes. With sexual harassment, the condition is considered intolerable if the source of the harassment was from a supervisor or, if by a co-worker, human resources and management failed to address it.

Intolerable conditions due to discrimination apply to the same protected classes as in federal law. Discrimination based on race, age, sex, national origins, religion or disability all fall under this umbrella.

Cruelty alone, though, may not be enough. Cases that involved hostile bosses, insensitive co-workers, and workplace bullying did not always amount to hostile work environment. Not all poor treatment is actionable but many people who faced these situations still received unemployment benefits.

What is constructive discharge?

Intolerable conditions and hostile work environment are the situations that lead to a constructive discharge. The constructive discharge is the act of quitting a job due to the situation and those circumstances must be serious enough that any reasonable person would feel compelled to leave. Taken in the context of the environment, the court will review cases for these fact scenarios to determine whether a constructive discharge took place:

– Threats to employee or suggestions to resign or retire
– Demotion
– Reduction of salary or benefits
– Transfers to a less desirable position
– Change in job responsibilities
– Negative job evaluations

The idea of constructive discharge, and these considerations, comes from the Third Circuit case Colwell v. Rite-Aid. In that matter, the plaintiff claimed her employer forced her resignation by failing to accommodate her disability and also listed violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Age Discrimination and in Employment Act.

However, the court indicated that the behavior of the employer must make it unbearable to the employee. In Colwell, the plaintiff claimed isolation from other employees, criticism for being ‘slow’, and limitations that kept her from working the floor. These actions did not make employment hostile—just slightly limiting.

Successful constructive discharge cases are a result of illegal reasons, such as mistreatment of someone of a protected class or harassment. These claims can be hard to prove as people have different sensitivities and a bad situation for one may be tolerable to another. Some experts in employment believe that if the plaintiff in Colwell claimed age or disability discrimination, she may have prevailed.

What should I do if I am facing a bad work situation?

If you find that you feel ill just thinking about going to work, take some time to write down the circumstances contributing to that feeling. There is a possibility that you buried those sentiments and performing this exercise may bring them to the surface better. Once there, you can assess their seriousness and decide on a next step.

Are you being sexually harassed? Try reporting the incident first, if you have not done so already. If that does not get you anywhere, consider contacting an employment law attorney. Are you feeling threatened? Again, report the incident—in any case, failing to report will not help any future legal matters.

Since these matters are very complex, it is likely a good idea to consult with an attorney before you make any major decisions. You can see if quitting constitutes constructive discharge and if not, evaluate your chances of a discrimination, harassment, or hostile work environment claim. This guidance can also prove necessary if you quit and have difficulty securing unemployment benefits.

At John J. Zidziunas & Associates, we offer free phone consultations for those who are facing this difficult situation. Call our office at (973) 509-8500 and we can help you with some initial decisions. There is no reason to face this alone and many that support having an attorney on your side as you navigate this process.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles from