Today, we will look at a recent decision by the United States Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which dealt with an age discrimination claim under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (“ADEA”), 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq., in the context of what is known as “constructive discharge.” In the case, Sam Stamey, had been constructively discharged in violation of the ADA by refusing to address a relentless and ruthless campaign of age-based harassment by his coworkers.
What how do I prove “constructive discharge” from my job?
Best Wrongful Termination Attorney Answer: As our employment lawyers have discussed in previous posts, a constructive discharge is essentially when a manager or boss forces and employee to quit instead of directly firing the employee. (Best Law Read: What Does “Constructive Discharge” Mean?; Can I Sue My Employer For Wrongful Termination If I’m Forced To Quit? I Need A Lawyer!). A constructive discharge occurs when an employee suffers “working conditions so intolerable that a reasonable person would have felt compelled to resign.” Pa. State Police v. Suders, 542 U.S. 129, 147, 124 S.Ct. 2342, 159 L.Ed.2d 204 (2004). “In the typical discriminatory constructive discharge case, the employer does not overtly seek a discontinuation in the employment relationship but the employee claims to be subjected to intolerable working conditions due to discriminatory behavior.” Scott v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 160 F.3d 1121, 1127 (6th Cir. 1998). An employee must show the working conditions are even more severe than what is required for a hostile work environment claim, such as a repeated pattern of offensive conduct by their supervisor, retaliatory actions after an employee complains, and the employer’s general failure to respond despite repeated complaints. (Best Law Read: What Qualifies a Hostile Work Environment Under Title VII?).
If an employee can show that he or she was constructively discharged, that will satisfy the prima facie requirement of an employment discrimination or wrongful termination claim. (Best Law Read: What does prima facie mean?; What Constitutes An Adverse Employment Action Under Title VII?; What Is An Adverse Employment Action?). The employment laws set up regarding constructive discharge are designed to prevent employers from avoiding discrimination claims by saying that it never fired an employee because the employee chose to quit.
What does constructive discharge based on age-related harassment look like?
Best Age Discrimination Lawyer Answer: While constructive discharge claims are typically more difficult to prove than hostile work environment claims, today’s case demonstrates that a pattern of targeted harassment — over only a 10-month period — can be enough to make out a viable constructive discharge claim.
Recently, in Stamey v. Forest River, Inc., No. 21-1539, 2022 WL 2187794 (7th Cir. June 17, 2022), Scott Stamey worked at Forest River, Inc. (“Forest River”) from October 2007 until resigning his employment in August 2018 (at the age of 62).
Stamey began experiencing harassment by his coworkers in the fall of 2017 when he was 61 years old. The harassment continued for about 10 months, ranging from verbal harassment to acts that intended to interfere with his work. Stamey’s co-workers would spew insults to Stamey every morning on his way into the building when he left for the day, and during breaks. Stamey’s coworkers would explicitly refer to his age, calling him “Walmart greeter, grandma, old b—“, and many other insults. coworkers would even ask him things like “You still alive? When are you retiring? I thought you died last week.” Stamey estimated to have received around 1,000 insults between late 2017 and early 2018. He also believed two dozen coworkers had participated in these antics.
In addition to these insults, coworkers would repeatedly deface Stamey’s workstation, including writing profanity on his tool cabinet, in the bathroom, zip-tying his tools together, and would even tape or glue his tool cabinets shut. Obviously, this greatly interfered with Stamey’s work.
Stamey attempted to report these countless incidences of harassment to management at Forest River. Sometime after the alleged harassment began in 2017, Stamey’s fiancé called the human resources department with Forest River to report the misconduct. Stamey’s fiancé was then instructed to call a different individual within the human resources department, left a voicemail, but never received a call back.
Stamey next turned to his supervisor for help. Following this report to his supervisors, the insults and harassment only stopped for a week or two before resuming. Stamey later approached a different supervisor, who only responded by telling Stamey that without certainty of the identity of the coworkers, he could not help. Unfortunately, nothing much changed for Stamey through the end of 2017 and into early 2018.
In the spring of 2018, Stamey tried once more to get help from management, but again, received little relief. Stamey even tried reaching out to the human resources office within Forest River’s Corporate Office but was later told by his plant manager that Stamey should not have gone over his head. The plant manager also failed to confirm whether the harassment had stopped or persisted.
Subsequently, Stamey filed suit against his employer in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, alleging the company constructively discharged him in violation of the ADEA. After the close of discovery, Forest River moved for, and was granted, summary judgment, which means that his entire case was thrown out before getting to the jury. The district court held that Stamey’s working conditions were not so intolerable as to support a finding of constructive discharge. Specifically, the district court reasoned that the (daily) age-based insults Stamey endured “may have been humiliating,” but “[n]one of the comments were made by Mr. Stamey’s direct supervisors,” and his coworkers’ (constant) interference with Stamey’s work constituted mere “physical pranks” with only an “attenuated connection to age, if any at all.” The district court also held that a reasonable person in Stamey’s position would not have quit but, instead, sought assistance (again) from Forest River’s management.
The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed and vacated the district court’s entry of summary judgment in favor of Forest River. The Court held that “[a] jury could find that the harassment Stamey experienced was egregious enough to meet the high threshold of constructive discharge[,]” and that “a rational jury could also conclude that a reasonable person in [Stamey’s] position would have believed it futile to continue seeking help from Forest River.”
In viewing the verbal and physical harassment Stamey encountered, the Court emphasized the pervasiveness of Stamey’s coworkers’ harassment (including the estimated 1,000 verbal insults made during the 10-month period preceding Stamey’s resignation). The Court found instructive a previous case decided by the Seventh Circuit, Boumehdi v. Plastag Holdings, LLC, 489 F.3d 781 (7th Cir. 2007). In Boumehdi, the Court of Appeals held that a “reasonable person in [plaintiff’s] position would feel she had no choice but to resign[,]” after the plaintiff in that case endured 18 sexist and offensive comments from a supervisor over a period of 10 months, without management intervening to address the harassment. Given the much greater volume of insults suffered by Stamey, the Court found that “a jury could reasonably infer that [the insults] were part and parcel of the age-based harassment campaign—they were often closely linked and targeted at the plant’s oldest employee.” This, coupled with the interference campaign undertaken by Stamey’s coworkers, led the Court to find that a jury could “conclude his working conditions were sufficiently egregious to give rise to a constructive discharge.”
The Court also found that a reasonable person in Stamey’s position would have concluded that help was not forthcoming from Forest River’s management or HR, and further requests for assistance would have been “futile.” As the Court noted, Stamey spoke with at least five members of Forest River’s human resources department and management team prior to filing a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) in June 2018. (Best Law Read: It’s Bad To File With The EEOC Without A Lawyer; Read This Before Filing An EEOC Charge). After filing his charge, Stamey again spoke with his direct supervisor regarding the harassment, to no avail. In viewing the record before it, the Court concluded:
Stamey has presented enough evidence for a jury to find that he did not need to give Forest River more time to attempt to remedy the harassment before quitting because he reasonably believed that doing so would have been futile. After his former supervisor Pontius died, there remained three Forest River supervisors with whom Stamey had discussed the harassment. Tubicsak in HR never returned either of Stamey’s messages. Stamey’s supervisor Brady shrugged off at least two requests for help, claiming that Stamey could not name the offenders with certainty—despite Stamey providing him the names of some of the most persistent alleged verbal harassers. And Scott McDonald, the plant manager, chastised Stamey for reporting the harassment to Tubicsak and never made him aware of any steps being taken to stop it. After Stamey spoke to McDonald, the physical interference stopped but the verbal harassment escalated. So from Stamey’s perspective there was little reason to believe that anybody at Forest River would do anything to address his persistent harassment.
What should I do if I’m experiencing repeated patterns of harassment with no help from management or your own supervisors?
Best Wrongfully Fired Lawyer Answer: While constructive discharge claims may be generally more difficult to prove, the story of Scott Stamey demonstrates that courts will not let stand pervasive, targeted campaigns of harassment that extend over a protracted period of time. If you are the victim of such harassment in the workplace — whether based on age, race, gender, national origin, sexual orientation, disability status, etc. — then call the right attorney to schedule a free and confidential consultation. (Read: What is the Spitz No Fee Guarantee?) Call our lawyers in Cleveland, Columbus, Detroit, Toledo, Cincinnati and Raleigh to get help now. Spitz, The Employee’s Law Firm and its experienced attorneys are dedicated to protecting employees’ rights and solving employment disputes.
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