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Harassment and a Hostile Work Environment

Harassment in the workplace can take many different forms, including discrimination based upon race, disability orgender, or sexual harassment. (See the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Tennessee Human Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Americans with Disabilities Amendment Act.) Tennessee workers also have protection under our state’s “Whistleblower Statute,” known officially as the Public Protection Act. This statute protects employees who report or refuse to engage in illegal activities at work.

If you have a discrimination claim involving any of these areas, we have some unexpected advice for you: don’t resign. Resigning from your job adds another hurdle of proof to your claim, namely that your resignation constitutes a constructive discharge.

Your Rights as an Employee

The doctrine of constructive discharge recognizes that some resignations are coerced, and that employers should not be permitted to escape liability simply because they forced an employee to resign.  In such cases, the court might actually recognize an employee’s resignation as forced, in effect, a termination.

The most frequently encountered variety appears in the context of hostile work environment discrimination claims. In these cases, a constructive discharge arises when an employer permits a hostile working environment to render an employee’s working conditions so intolerable that resignation is the employee’s only reasonable alternative.  See Frye v. St. Thomas Health Services, 227 S.W.3d 595, 611-612 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2007).

The Tennessee Supreme Court has held that in order to establish a claim for constructive discharge, an employee must show that the employer knowingly permitted conditions of discrimination in employment so intolerable that a reasonable person would resign their employment.

What to Do
  1. Don’t resign before you speak to an attorney.
  2. Educate yourself. Read what the EEOC has to say about harassment.
  3. Seek legal advice promptly. An attorney experienced in employment law can answer your questions and help you build your case.
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