Workplace Bullying & Constructive Discharge

Exclamation PointMost people think that the unemployment office is something like a court of law – impartial.

If they’re in Nevada, they’d be wrong.

I have a friend who was bullied out of a job that she really loved by a new supervisor who was hired from out of state. This supervisor systematically increased my friend’s workload to the point of impossibility, and then exceeded those bounds by actually requring the performance of  impossible tasks. She also incessantly barked at my friend as if my friend was a deaf Chihuahua instead of an educated professional.

My friend complained – verbally – to a human resources officer but nothing changed. She verbally complained to members of the senior management team. Nothing changed.

Finally something changed,  my friend’s health. When my friend began experiencing heart palpitations and severe anxiety, she felt she had no choice but to submit her resignation.

I encouraged my friend to file an unemployment compensation claim because she was essentially forced to resign. The theory of constructive discharge holds that an employee may be considered fired when the employer makes working conditions so intolerable that a reasonable person would have decided there was no option other than to quit.

We were surprised and encouraged when my friend’s former  employer did not contest her claim for unemployment insurance. A reasonable and impartial jurist would interpret this as a tacit admission that her claim was valid.  But not the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation.

The unemployment officer denied my friend’s request for unemployment benefits, and that decision was upheld on  appeal.

The initial reason for the denial by the unemployment office appears to be that my friend didn’t complain in writing– she complained verbally but she didn’t file a written complaint.

Of course, there was absolutely no evidence that a written complaint was or is a prerequisite for providing notice to an employer or obtaining unemployment benefits  but … hey, pesky details.

The unemployment office “board of review” didn’t bother to give a reason for upholding the earlier denial. Here’s what it said: “After examining the record, the Board declines further review.”

So the bottom line is the state of Nevada denied unemployment benefits to a bullied worker  even though the worker’s former employer did not object to the worker receiving unemployment benefits.

Why would the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and  Rehabilitation aggressively defend the “rights” of an employer that chose not to assert its  rights in the matter?

Why would the Nevada Department of  Employment, Training and Rehabilitation take it upon itself to deny benefits to a worker whom almost any reasonable observer would agree was bullied out of her job?

What do you have to do to convince the unemployment office that you are a victim of constructive termination – have a  heart attack and die on the job?

It’s a sad outcome for my friend and I personally  regret  that I encouraged her to assert her rights only to be disappointed by a supposedly neutral arbiter that now appears to be anything but neutral.  I thought she’d get a measure of justice after being denied it at her former workplace. I was wrong.

On a  macro level, it is depressing when government officials who are in the business of employment, training and rehabilittion show so little understanding of and  regard for the problem of workplace bullying. It shows how far we have to go to hold employers accountable for bullying in the workplace.

Target can have job, not $4.4 million

Here’s yet another case where a jury “got it” but the court did not.  Not only did the appeals court minimize the trauma of workplace abuse in its ruling but it did not hold the employer accountable for failing to halt workplace abuse. PGB

Court Overturns Jury Award

James McKelvey was an Army soldier in 2004 when he lost his right hand trying to defuse a roadside bomb in Iraq.

After recovering at a base in Germany and at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, McKelvey moved back to Michigan, and in February 2006 accepted a civilian job with the army as an operations specialist first at Selfridge Air National Guard Base and eventually at the Detroit Arsenal.

There he became a target of verbal abuse regarding his injury by his supervisor and co-workers, and his supervisor either failed to give him work to do or gave him demeaning work assignments.

McKelvey quit on February 16, 2007 to take a non-military job in the local sheriff’s department, saying he had only stayed that long at the armory because he had a wife and child to support. He then filed a lawsuit alleging he was essentially fired – or constructively discharged – because of a hostile work environment stemming from discrimination because of his disability.

A Michigan federal court jury ruled for McKelvey on both claims but it awarded no damages on the hostile-work-environment claim.  Instead, the jury awarded McKelvey $4,388,302 in front pay on the constructive-discharge claim. Front pay is money awarded for lost compensation during the period between judgment and reinstatement, or if reinstatement is not feasible, instead of reinstatement.

The trial court judge immediately vacated the jury’s award, finding that it was not supported by law.

This week, an appellate court found that McKelvey was constructively discharged from his job at the armory but agreed with the trial court that the proper remedy is reinstatement and not the $4.4 million jury award. (See McKelvey v. Secretary of United States Army, No. 10-1172 (Dec. 14, 2011).

The appeals court said “reasonable minds” could find that McKelvey was constructively discharged from his job at the armory because “ … the crux of this claim turns on the harassment McKelvey endured. McKelvey presented evidence that (a supervisor and coworker) repeatedly called him, among other derogatory things, “all fucked up,” “a piece of shit,” “worthless,” and “a fucking cripple.” … Repeated over the course of nine months, this constant stream of invective could sustain a finding of constructive discharge.”

And yet, the appeals court said, the proper remedy in McKelvey’s case is reinstatement. The court said the $4.4 million award of front pay was too “speculative” for a relatively young man of 38 years old and any trauma McKelvey might experience by returning to the job would be mitigated by the fact that he would have different supervisors and four of his six co-workers would be new, with no connection to the prior harassment.

The  Army had argued that McKelvey could not claim constructive discharge because conditions had improved two months before he quit. According to the appeals court,“This gap is too short for us to say as a matter of law that McKelvey’s workplace was no longer intolerable, and is shorter than the gaps in cases where an employee’s delay in leaving precluded a finding of constructive discharge.”  However, the court said it might agree that McKelvey had waited to long to quit if he had stayed much longer.

The appeals court said McKelvey is entitled to back pay from the time he was constructively discharged until the Army offered him reinstatement  following the trial in his case.