“Constructive Discharge” Hard To Prove

Juan Aguirre was employed by the City of Miami Police Department in the Department’s off-duty employment office. In March 2003, Aguirre testified in a civil lawsuit against the City. Aguirre’s direct supervisor, Lieutenant Rene Landa, was present for the testimony, and was angry because he felt that Aguirre’s testimony concerning the City’s policy towards disabled officers and the discriminatory conduct of command-level officers was inaccurate.

Later that evening, Aguirre returned to his office to find a memo from Landa on his desk. The memo stated that Aguirre would no longer be able to work off-duty jobs without Landa’s consent. Prior to the memo, Aguirre had been allowed to unilaterally choose whatever off-duty jobs he wanted to work.

In the days and weeks following the memo, Aguirre met with various members of his chain of command regarding his difficulties with Landa. Nonetheless, the Department removed Aguirre’s supervisory responsibilities, no longer allowed him to attend unit meetings, and he was basically confined to doing clerical work. In April 2003, Aguirre was eventually told that he was being transferred to patrol duty. The transfer, however, was later revoked. Instead, a few months later, Landa was transferred out of the off-duty office.

After Landa’s transfer out of the off-duty office, a number of Landa’s decisions were reversed, and Aguirre was once again allowed to choose his own assignments, attend meetings, and was no longer confined to clerical work. Over a year later, in September 2004, Aguirre retired from the Department and filed a lawsuit alleging that he was discriminated against in retaliation for his testimony concerning what he believed to be the Department’s discriminatory practices.

A jury found in Aguirre’s favor, specifically holding that he had been “constructively discharged” (i.e., forced to retire) by the retaliation instituted by Landa. The City then challenged the jury’s award, asking the trial court for a judgment in its favor as a matter of law.

The trial court found that no evidence supported the notion that Aguirre had been constructively discharged. The standard, the Court recited, was that an “employee must prove that his working conditions were so difficult or unpleasant that a reasonable person would have felt compelled to resign.” The problem, the Court observed, was that Aguirre waited a year to resign after Landa’s conduct.

The Court noted that “while we are reticent to overturn the verdict of any jury, and recognize that the jury concluded that the City had effectively constructively discharged Aguirre, we are compelled by overwhelming case law to conclude the contrary. Unfortunately, the fact that the jury found that Aguirre had been retaliated against by the City is, alone, insufficient to satisfy a claim for constructive discharge. While we do not necessarily agree with the notion that an aggrieved party must immediately quit his/her job in order to be constructively discharged, higher courts have found this to be the law. The Court finds it difficult to conclude that Aguirre resigned within a reasonable time of the City’s adverse actions. According to applicable case law, it seems clear that quitting one year beyond the occurrence of the City’s adverse employment action or retaliatory conduct, while employment conditions had clearly improved, fails to fall within the reasonable time frame contemplated by the law.”

Aguirre v. City of Miami, 2007 WL 2700579 (S.D.Fla. 2007).

This article appears in the November 2007 issue