Many residents of Oregon will be surprised to learn that the state is an “at will” state. That designation means that, in the absence of a written contract, an employer can fire an employee at any time, for any reason, or for no reason at all. Conversely, the employee can quit a job at any time without giving a reason. In other words, the employment relationship can be terminated at any time at the decision of either the employee or the employer. Oregon has enacted a statute that provides an important exception to the “at will” rule: constructive discharge. All employees should understand this exception because it can protect a person’s job against the whims of an unreasonable employer.
The definition of “constructive discharge”
The statute states the rule of constructive discharge very succinctly: “Constructive discharge occurs when an individual leaves employment because of unlawful discrimination.” The statute specifies four factual elements that must be proved to establish that a constructive discharge occurred.
The first element is proof that the employer “intentionally created or intentionally maintained discriminatory working conditions related to the individual’s protected class status.” The worker must prove that he or she belongs to a protected class; protected classes include minorities, women, disabled persons.
The second element is proving that “[t]he working conditions were so intolerable that a reasonable person in the individual’s circumstances would have resigned because of them. This element requires the plaintiff to prove that adverse working conditions were material to the job and that any reasonable person would have found them objectionable. This element is quintessentially a question to be decided by the jury.
The third condition is proof that the employer was aware of the worker’s dissatisfaction and that the worker was certain or substantially certain to quit the job. The fourth element is proof that the worker left the job because of the adverse working conditions.
If the plaintiff can prove each of the elements listed above, the employer may be held liable for breach of contract. These damages would include loss of income for any period in which the worker was unable to find another job, or the difference in salary or wages if the replacement job paid less than the job that the worker quit.
Anyone who is employed under conditions that may satisfy the statutory definition of constructive discharge may wish to consult an experienced employment law attorney for an evaluation of the case and an opinion on the likelihood of proving constructive discharge and recovering damages.