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Pennsylvania Supreme Court Rules that an Employee Who Claims Constructive Discharge Has Resigned

As Published in the June, 2018 Issue of the PELRAS Newsletter

Published on: Fri 8th Jun, 2018 By: Paul Lalley

The ending of the relationship between public employer and employee can be murky when an employee alleges some form of harassment; stops showing up to work; has not actually been terminated for cause; but claims (of course, in the lawsuit complaint) that he or she was “constructively discharged.” What is that person’s employment status?

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently addressed that question in Kegerise v. Delgrande. In that case, Dr. Susan Kegerise was appointed as the Superintendent of the Susquehanna Township School District. A few years into her employment, she alleged that school board members engaged in “hostile actions” towards her, including “physical intimidation” and “verbal abuse.” She went on medical leave on March 25, 2014, and informed the school board that she would not return to work until April 21, 2014. While she was on medical leave, however, Dr. Kegerise’s lawyer wrote to the school board, asserting that Dr. Kegerise had been constructively discharged, and followed up on that letter shortly after with a federal court complaint that also claimed constructive discharge.

The school board responded by informing Dr. Kegerise that, in light of her allegations of constructive discharge, the board had voted to accept her resignation from employment. The school board believed that once Dr. Kegerise claimed she was constructively discharged, this necessarily meant that she had resigned from employment. Dr. Kegerise, however, contested the school board’s action, denied that her allegations of constructive discharge constituted her resignation from employment, and filed suit in the Dauphin County Court of Common Pleas, asking that she be reinstated as the District’s Superintendent. The lower courts ruled in Dr. Kegerise’s favor, and ordered her reinstated with back pay.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, however, reversed. The Court noted the United States Supreme Court’s 2016 decision in Green v. Brennan that a “constructive discharge” claim under Title VII has two elements: (1) that the plaintiff was discriminated against “to the point where a reasonable person in his position would have felt compelled to resign;” and, (2) that the plaintiff has “actually resigned.” Notwithstanding that Dr. Kegerise later claimed that she did not actually intend to resign, the Court found that her two assertions of constructive discharge—by letter from her lawyer, and in her federal complaint—justified the school board in treating her as having resigned, and in accepting her resignation.

The Kegerise decision brings Pennsylvania law into line with federal law regarding a person’s employment status when they claim that they have been constructively discharged: they have resigned from employment. The school board’s decision to accept Dr. Kegerise’s resignation —because the general rule is that a person can rescind his or her resignation up to the moment that it is accepted—was ultimately vindicated. In light of the Kegerise decision, a public employer faced with an employee’s claim of constructive discharge should consult with its solicitor about the possible benefits of notifying the employee of acceptance of the resignation (conclusive ending of the employment relationship and potential advantage in defending an unemployment compensation claim, where the burden then shifts to the employee to show that a resignation was due to “compelling and necessitous” reasons) as against any possible risks to the municipality in defending the constructive discharge claim in litigation (i.e., validating the “actually resigned” element of the claim).