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What Constitutes "Constructive Discharge" in Pennsylvania?

Many clients feel that their work situation is so intolerable that they have no choice but to resign.  This is referred to as a “constructive discharge.”  However, whether or not the courts will agree with an employee’s characterization of a constructive discharge can be a major factor in the success of any wrongful termination case based upon a “constructive discharge.”

A recent Third Circuit case, DiFiore v. CSL Behring, addressed the standard for successfully stating a claim of “constructive discharge” under Pennsylvania law.

In this case, plaintiff DiFiore alleged that after she complained to her supervisors about alleged off-label marketing of the company’s drugs, she was retaliated against:  specifically, by receiving two warning letters, a poor performance review, being removed from certain duties and eventually being placed on a performance improvement plan (PIP).  Believing that the PIP was merely the next step along the path to her being fired, Ms. DiFiore resigned, alleging that the totality of the company’s actions were sufficient to constitute a claim for “constructive discharge.”   The court disagreed.

The court clarified that under Pennsylvania law, merely difficult or unpleasant working conditions fall short of what is needed to state a viable claim.  The court stated that working conditions need to be “so intolerable that a reasonable employee has no option left but to resign.”  The judges specifically stated that close or even overly zealous supervision will generally not be sufficient to state a claim. 

What mattered to the justices was their finding that the plaintiff did not sufficiently explore alternative solutions or means of improving her situation before she resigned.  For example, the decision noted that Ms. DiFiore made no attempt to comply with the PIP.  They also cited that when a meeting to discuss the PIP was canceled, the plaintiff chose to resign rather than even attempt to reschedule. The court held that she prematurely abandoned her attempt to work with her employer on the PIP, and thus did not demonstrate that she had no option left but to resign.

We appreciate how stressful and difficult “constructive discharge” situations can be for employees.  It is clear from this case that employees in these difficult situations need to seek qualified counsel to help them appropriately document how the employee has exhausted every viable option to stay before they resign so that a constructive discharge claim can be stated in accordance with state law.

Robin Bond