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Resignation to avoid involuntary psychiatric commitment may be constructive discharge

By Ronald Miller, J.D.

A nurse who resigned after being informed that she would be suspended for 30 days with pay and immediately escorted to drug screening and three-day inpatient psychiatric hospitalization stated a claim for constructive discharge, ruled the Fifth Circuit in a unpublished decision. Where the employee was faced with involuntary psychiatric commitment and denied an opportunity to consider her options or speak to someone, such facts could lead to the plausible inference that an HR director was motivated by a desire to force the employee’s resignation in order to avoid pre-termination procedures.  Thus, the appeals court reversed the district court’s grant of the HR director’s motion to dismiss the employee’s procedural due process claim (LeBeouf v Manning, July 15, 2014, per curiam).

The nurse worked for a public hospital for 25 years. Without explanation, she was informed by the hospital’s HR director that she would be suspended for 30 days with pay and immediately escorted to drug screening and three-day, involuntary, inpatient psychiatric hospitalization. After the employee agreed to the drug screening but resisted the psychiatric commitment, the director gave her three options: (1) accept the suspension, submit to the drug screening, and participate in the psychiatric hospitalization; (2) resign; or (3) be terminated. The employer denied her time to consider her options. The employee resigned, then sued the hospital and HR director under Sec. 1983 for constructive discharge without due process of law. According to the employee, the HR director presented no evidence that she had consumed any alcoholic beverages, had taken illegal drugs, was otherwise chemically impaired, or was a threat to herself or others. The district court concluded that the employee failed to state a claim for relief and entered judgment in favor of the HR director.

On appeal, the parties agreed that the employee was a classified civil service employee with permanent status who had a property interest in her position at the hospital and therefore was entitled to due process protection. However, they disagreed as to whether her complaint demonstrated that she resigned or was constructively discharged.

Constructive discharge. Establishing constructive discharge generally requires a plaintiff to show that her employer made her “working conditions so intolerable that a reasonable employee would feel compelled to resign.” The Fifth Circuit has observed that a constructive discharge occurs where it can be shown that an employee is subject to badgering, harassment, or humiliation calculated to encourage the employee to resign. Further, “[c]onstructive discharge in a procedural due process case constitutes a Sec. 1983 claim only if it amounts to forced discharge to avoid affording pretermination hearing procedures.”

Here, an objectively reasonable person in the employee’s position could feel that the HR director created an intolerable working environment when he informed her that she would be immediately committed to a three-day psychiatric hospital. Psychiatric commitment under Louisiana law generally requires “clear and convincing evidence that [an individual] is dangerous to self or others or is gravely disabled, as a result of substance abuse or mental illness.” The HR director provided no explanation to the employee why she would be committed or why such commitment was necessary in light of the fact that she was not protesting the drug test or suspension. Therefore, the situation allegedly created by the HR director constituted the type of harassment that results in an intolerable working environment such that a reasonable employee would be forced to choose between voluntary resignation or forced termination.

Moreover, it was plausible to infer that the HR director’s actions were motivated by his desire to secure the employee’s resignation and avoid affording her pre-termination proceedings. As HR director, he was aware of Louisiana’s civil service requirement that the employee receive a pre-termination hearing if she did not voluntarily resign. Further, he refused her request for time to consider her options or speak to someone else concerning her decision to be terminated, resign, or submit to the psychiatric commitment. Thus, the appeals court concluded that the employee’s complaint plausibly established that she was constructively discharged. Based on this alleged constructive discharge, the employee set forth a plausible procedural due process claim, as she did not receive either notice or an opportunity to respond to any alleged misconduct prior to her discharge.