Just How Bad Must a Supervisor Be for an Employee to Claim Constructive Discharge?

July 16, 2020

Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court recently ruled that an employee’s case against the employer did not rise to the level of a constructive discharge. In the case of Amela Kelleher vs. Lowell General Hospital & others, SJC No. 19-P-392, July 15, 2020, the court indicated that an employee’s claim of “intolerable working conditions” were insufficient to legally sustain a claim past the pleading stage. Specifically, the employee in this case alleged she worked for a supervisor who, on numerous occasions, had belittled and humiliated the employee in front of clients and other employees. The employee resigned because she could no longer take the supervisor’s mistreatment, and filed claims against the employer and supervisor alleging constructive discharge, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and other similar claims.

With regard to the employee’s constructive discharge claim, the court clarified that there is no such independent cause of action in Massachusetts because an employee does not have a right “not to be constructively discharged.” The employee must first have a right to not be terminated under common law or a contractual right. One of the examples the court used was an employee has a right to be free from employment discrimination. However, Constructive discharge, the court noted, is “merely a doctrine used to prove an element of a wrongful discharge claim – that is, that the employee was in fact discharged, rather than left involuntarily.” In other words, constructive discharge is simply an extension of liability to employers that may indirectly cause an employee’s termination that would have been forbidden by statute if done directly by the employer. Since the employee was at will in this case and had no contractual right to continued employment, the employee could be terminated at any time and for any reason. For these reasons, the court dismissed her constructive discharge claims, and her other claims were dismissed due to the employee’s inability to meet the specific legal elements of the other claims.

While the employee described dreadful conduct by the supervisor, the conduct alone did not support the employee’s claims against this employer or the supervisor. Employers should consider taking a careful look at employee complaints about supervisor mistreatment in order to reduce risks of litigation regarding these issues.

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