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What Is Constructive Discharge?

Every working person knows what being discharged means. However, what many are unaware of is that one need not be told “You’re fired” in certain terms to consider themselves terminated. There is a concept in civil law that refers to constructive possession, or constructive termination, or so on. In this context, constructive means something that is treated as if it were true, when it is in reality a legal fiction. If conditions make it so that you are prevented from doing your job, you may be able to allege constructive termination, which is one of the few exceptions to the at-will rule in South Carolina.

Objective Impossibility & Constructive Discharge

Constructive discharge is defined as being in a situation where it becomes objectively impossible to do one’s job. This is not the same as an instance where one finds certain conditions objectionable (for example, feeling unsafe or disapproving of the cleanliness level of an office). When conditions are objectionable, one can still in theory do one’s job most of the time. Constructive discharge only applies when one is specifically prevented from performing one’s duties.

If you, say, find your office or workplace too messy and unappealing, you can still usually perform your duties. The situation would have to rise to the level of dangerous neglect for you to be constructively discharged by the mess level. For example, if the floors in your workspace have not been cleaned in weeks, they might become slippery or otherwise dangerous. If your job involves navigating that floor space, it might be possible to allege constructive discharge, because the doctrine holds that one should not have to place themselves at unforeseen risk in order to do their job.

Employer Defenses

Many employers may try to argue, if you should bring suit or file a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), that you resigned voluntarily. If your employer exercises a reasonable duty of care in terms of maintaining your workspace, but you leave anyway, it will likely be held that the employer owed you no further duty. If you are transferred to a location where you feel unsafe, but all reasonable security precautions are taken by the employer, you will not be able to claim constructive discharge.

Some employers may also attempt to argue that even if constructive discharge has occurred, that South Carolina is an at-will state, meaning that anyone may (in theory) be fired for any reason. This is not in fact the case. Most states, South Carolina included, recognize a public policy exception to at-will employment laws, meaning that when someone is terminated, it cannot be for a reason or in a manner directly opposed to concepts perpetuating the public good. Making a job situation so problematic or difficult that one is forced to quit is hardly perpetuating the public good.

Get Help From an Employment Law Attorney

Since it can be difficult to determine what exactly constitutes a constructive discharge, it can be a good idea to consult an attorney if you believe you have a case. Attorney A. Christopher Potts and his Charleston discrimination law firm can assist you.

Contact us today to set up an initial appointment.


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