Academic journal article William and Mary Law Review

Eliminating the Intent Requirement in Constructive Discharge Cases: Pennsylvania State Police V. Suders

Academic journal article William and Mary Law Review

Eliminating the Intent Requirement in Constructive Discharge Cases: Pennsylvania State Police V. Suders

Article excerpt


In Pennsylvania State Police v. Suders, (1) the United States Supreme Court recognized for the first time that employers may be held liable under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (2) for constructive discharge. (3) The Court also held that constructive discharge may be considered a tangible employment action, (4) and, in certain circumstances, an employer may raise an affirmative defense against a claim of constructive discharge. (5) In so doing, the Court resolved a split among circuit courts as to whether constructive discharge constitutes a tangible employment action. (6) Although Suders offered much-needed clarity on the issue of constructive discharge, (7) the Court did not expressly address the issue of whether a former employee alleging constructive discharge must prove that the employer acted intentionally. (8)

Part I of this Note examines the facts behind Suders and outlines the Court's holdings. Part II postulates that, although the Court did not expressly address whether an employee claiming constructive discharge must prove that the employer acted with intent, the Court's ruling in Suders may have implicitly eliminated such a requirement. Part III examines the potential impact of Suders and suggests that, together with the Court's other holdings in the case--in particular its definition of constructive discharge and the damages it made available in constructive discharge cases--eliminating the intent requirement may create an incentive for some employees who are subjected to harassment at work to resign and seek recourse through the courts. Finally, this Note concludes that, to the degree that Suders creates such an incentive for employees to quit without first proceeding through the proper complaint channels, Suders does not advance specific purposes of Title VII.


A. Factual Background

Nancy Drew Suders began working for the Pennsylvania State Police (PSP) in March 1998 as a police communications operator. (9) According to Suders, she was subjected to offensive sexual comments and gestures during most of her tenure at the PSP. (10) Suders claimed that the inappropriate conduct came primarily from three male supervisors. (11) Specifically, Suders claimed that the station commander brought "'up [the subject of] people having sex with animals,"' (12) talked about oral sex with another male supervisor in Suders's presence, and commented to Suders about his wife's breasts. (13) Suders also alleged that another male supervisor made obscene gestures, apparently imitating a television wrestling move, "as many as five to ten times per night throughout her five-month tenure." (14) Suders claimed that on one occasion she told the supervisor that she thought his conduct was inappropriate, and he responded by jumping onto a chair and repeating the move. (15) According to Suders, a third male supervisor "verbally harassed her day after day" (16) by calling her a liar and telling her that "the village idiot could do her job." (17)

In June 1998, after one of her male supervisors accused her of taking a missing file home with her, Suders contacted the PSP's Equal Employment Opportunity Officer (EEO Officer). (18) Suders told the EEO Officer that "she might need some help" but did not provide further details. (19) The EEO Officer gave her phone number to Suders but never followed up on the conversation. (20)

According to Suders, the harassment "continued unabated" until it "reached a breaking point" in August 1998. (21) Suders contacted the EEO Officer again and stated that she was being harassed and that she was afraid. (22) Suders claimed that the EEO Officer was "insensitive and unhelpful" and that the EEO Officer told Suders to file a formal complaint, but did not tell her how to obtain a complaint form. (23)

Two days after her conversation with the EEO Officer, Suders resigned from her position at the PSP. …

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