Housing Authority May Have “Constructively Discharged” Manager
Facts: In 1990, after two years as property manager, an African-American employee of the St. Clair Housing Authority informed his supervisor that he had an interest in the position of director of property management. The supervisor selected a white man for the position, and the property manager was promoted to operations supervisor, supervising three to four property managers and developing screening criteria for public housing applicants.
From March 2001 to September 2006, the employee held the position of area supervisor. His responsibilities included overseeing the management of four different apartment complexes and supervising at least four individuals. During 2005 and 2006, the housing authority faced some financial struggles, so it offered an early retirement program to many of its employees. As a result of the early retirement program, the position of director of finance became available. The housing authority did not post an opening for this position, a white woman was the only person considered for the job, and she was promoted to it.
In 2006, the administrative director's position opened up. The African-American employee informed his boss that he was interested in the job, and was told his interest would be taken into consideration. But his boss recommended a white woman for the post, and did not have any discussion with him.
In the next few months, several additional positions opened up, including a newly created post of deputy director, but they all were ultimately filled by whites. The African-American employee was never considered for any of these jobs, despite his clear interest in them.
In September 2006, the employee informed the housing authority that he was resigning. In April 2008, he sued the housing authority in federal district court for racial discrimination, claiming that he was “constructively discharged” or “forced” to resign. The housing authority asked the court to dismiss the case.
Decision: The court sided with the employee and denied the housing authority's motion to dismiss the case entirely. The court ruled that the housing authority may have “constructively discharged” the employee and ordered a trial on the merits of the case.
Reasoning: The court explained that “constructive discharge” occurs when an employee shows that he was forced to resign because his working conditions had become unbearable. The housing authority maintained that the employee voluntarily resigned from its employment and accepted a higher paying position at the Downtown Children's Center. The housing authority argued that the former employee cannot simply turn around and claim that the working conditions were so bad that he had no choice to resign.
The former employee countered that the housing authority's failure to promote him to any of the director positions that became available in 2006 constituted constructive discharge. Specifically, the court noted, the employee maintained that he quit his job only after learning that the housing authority filled several director positions with white employees without considering him for any of those positions. Furthermore, the court noted, he had held several different positions with the housing authority and the only way for him to obtain a higher-level position would have been for the housing authority to promote him. The court agreed with his assertion that the failure to even consider him for a director position was a career-ending action.
- Burns v. St. Clair Housing Authority, October 2009