What Is A ‘Constructive Discharge’?

Written on 02/03/2024

With some regularity, employees who resign later file lawsuits claiming that their working conditions were so oppressive that their resignations should be considered as “constructive discharges” subjecting the employer to potential lability. As demonstrated by a lawsuit filed by Officer Timothy Hoffstead of the Northeast Illinois Regional Commuter Railroad Corporation (Metra) showed, “constructive discharge” cases are very difficult to prove.

Hoffstead, a canine officer, disclosed to the City that he required prescription medication to treat several different medical conditions – Adderall and Concerta for his ADD, and Narco for his migraines and a wrist injury. On two occasions, Metra’s Medical Services Department approved Hoffstead’s request for an exemption from Metra’s drug policy for the medications.

On July 24, 2018, several months after Hoffstead submitted his latest updated physical and On-Duty Use of Medication Form, Metra ordered Hoffstead to take a random drug test. During the test, Hoffstead told the technician that he took Adderall for his ADD and expected to test positive for amphetamines. Metra’s Medical Review Officer, Dr. Scott Feldman, reviewed Hoffstead’s results, which indicated a positive test for amphetamine, hydrocodone, and hydromorphone.

Under Metra’s drug policy, if a drug test is positive, “the medical review officer will contact the employee to provide the employee the opportunity to provide an explanation as to why the test was positive or otherwise non-negative.” In compliance with the policy, Dr. Feldman attempted to contact Hoffstead three times to determine if Hoffstead had a legitimate explanation, such as a valid prescription, to justify the positive test results. Dr. Feldman did not hear from Hoffstead within 48 hours of the positive result. On August 3, Dr. Feldman reported the positive test result to Metra, explaining “positive due to no contact with donor within 48 hours.”

Metra relieved Hoffstead of duty pending an investigation. Later, Hoffstead agreed to participate in the drug policy’s “Rehabilitation Education program.” A lengthy process followed, including Metra’s mandatory report to the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board, Dr. Feldman’s decision to change the results of Hoffstead’s drug test to negative, and Hoffstead’s return to work.

Hoffstead’s return to work was a difficult one, with a variety of disputes arising between Hoffstead and Metra. Eventually, Hoffstead resigned to take a full-time position at the Genoa Police Department. Hoffstead then filed a federal court lawsuit alleging that he had been constructively discharged.

The Court dismissed Hoffstead’s lawsuit. The Court began by noting that “constructive discharge occurs when, from the standpoint of a reasonable employee, the working conditions become unbearable. Generally, such cases require a plaintiff to show working conditions even more egregious than that required for a hostile work environment claim because employees are generally expected to remain employed while seeking redress, thereby allowing an employer to address a situation before it causes the employee to quit.

“Hoffstead asserts that he lost several benefits after losing his position as a dog handler due to his being relieved of duty. Hoffstead did not receive the higher canine handler wage, lost access to his own patrol car, and no longer enjoyed the benefits of not having a specific starting location or specific assignments. However, in his new role on his return to work, Hoffstead received the pay differential for being a certified field training officer to bolster his patrolman pay. The additional changes in his job do not arise to the unbearable working conditions required to support a constructive discharge claim, as constructive discharge typically is found only in cases involving threats of physical harm or truly outrageous emotional abuse.

“Hoffstead also points to Metra’s failure to provide him certain resources necessary to do his job, including keys to other train stations, access to the ‘Bullet’ software to examine license plate data, or access to the proper biometric time-keeping software. However, the parties do not dispute that Metra did not use the Bullet system in October 2018, and that every patrolman, including Hoffstead, needed to communicate with Cook County Police dispatch instead. Taken together, the changes to Hoffstead’s position do not amount to intolerable working conditions that would amount to a constructive discharge, so the Court grants Metra summary judgment on this claim.”

Hoffstead v. Northeast Illinois Regional Commuter Railroad Corporation, 2023 WL 8353271 (N.D. Ill. 2023).