Employer Not Liable for Constructive Discharge for Suggesting That Employee Resign
Employment and Labor Law Alert
May 11, 2005
In Angeloni v. Diocese of Scranton, No. 03-4501, 2005 WL 616013 (3d Cir. Mar. 17, 2005), the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the district court's entry of summary judgment and ruled that employees who resign from their employment must demonstrate they were "constructively discharged" or they will not prevail on their Title VII discrimination claims -- having failed to prove an adverse employment action. The Court ruled that an employer's suggestion to the employee that she resign does not necessarily establish a constructive discharge claim. The Court further held that an employee will not establish the elements of a hostile work environment claim unless he/she establishes respondeat superior liability against the employer, which the plaintiff failed to do in this case.
In August 1996, Margaret M. Angeloni, then 14 years old, began working as a dining room and kitchen server at Villa St. Joseph. As part of her duties, Angeloni would wait on tables, serving food to the retired priests. Angeloni alleges that a few months after beginning her job, a retired priest, Reverend Hazzouri, began inappropriately touching her when she was waiting on his table -- his hand coming into contact with her thigh. In approximately May or June of 1997, Angeloni informed her supervisor Annette Balint about the alleged touchings. By the time Angeloni told her parents about the priest's alleged actions in July 1997, Balint had spoken with the rector at Villa St. Joseph, Bishop John M Dougherty.
Balint and Bishop Dougherty subsequently spoke with Angeloni's co-workers and Reverend Hazzouri, all of whom denied any inappropriate behavior had occurred. Based on the investigation, Bishop Dougherty recommended to Angeloni that she simply cease serving Reverend Hazzouri's table and reassured Angeloni's parents that steps were being taken to ensure that Angeloni was safe. Once Angeloni stopped serving the priest, the alleged touching ceased, even after Angeloni voluntarily resumed serving the priest's table some months later.
In December 1997, Angeloni informed her parents that she again felt intimidated by Reverend Hazzouri due to the fact that he had approached her and told her that he was worried about what she had stated about him. Angeloni's mother subsequently met with Bishop Dougherty to express her concerns about her daughter's safety. During the course of this meeting, Bishop Dougherty suggested that if Angeloni was not comfortable working at Villa St. Joseph, she could resign. In an effort to resolve the situation, he also offered to hold a meeting with both Angeloni's parents and Reverend Hazzouri. Angeloni resigned her position effective January 19, 1998, commencing a civil litigation some 4 years later.
In her suit, Angeloni made allegations against the Diocese of Scranton, Villa St. Joseph and Reverend Hazzouri ("Appellees"), alleging violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, including sexual harassment, retaliation and hostile work environment. The District Court granted Appellee's motion for summary judgment on all of Angeloni's Title VII claims.
The Court's Decision
The Court of Appeals first reviewed the District Court's ruling as it pertained to Angeloni's sexual harassment and retaliation claims. Initially, the Court found that Angeloni's failure to demonstrate constructive discharge was fatal to these claims. "Both Angeloni's quid pro quo sexual harassment claim and her retaliation claim depend upon her ability to prove that she was constructively discharged." Citing its decisions in Clowes v. Allegheny Valley Hosp., 991 F.2d 1159 (3d Cir. 1993) and Suders v. Easton, 325 F.3d 432 (3d Cir. 2003), the Court set forth that "[a]lthough we have considered an employer's suggestion or encouragement that one resign as indicative of constructive discharge, any such suggestion or encouragement is not dispositive." The Court proceeded to analyze whether Bishop Dougherty's suggestion that Angeloni resign if she was uncomfortable working at Villa St. Joseph, was enough to demonstrate that Angeloni had been constructively discharged. The Court ultimately found that the Bishop's suggestion to be "benign." Moreover, it held that since the alleged conduct had ceased months before the Bishop's suggestion was made and since Angeloni's decision to leave was made with her parents' guidance at home, Angeloni had failed to prove that a reasonable person would consider her work conditions so intolerable that she would have been compelled to resign. Accordingly, as there was no adverse employment action, the Court found that summary judgment on the sexual harassment and retaliation claims was proper.
The Court next turned to Angeloni's hostile work environment claim. In evaluation whether Angeloni could succeed on her claim that the Diocese of Scranton and the Villa St. Joseph are liable for creating a hostile work environment, the Court found that Angeloni was required to satisfy each component of a five-part test, demonstrating that: "(1) she suffered intentional discrimination because of her sex; (2) the discrimination was 'pervasive and regular'; (3) she was detrimentally affected; (4) the discrimination she points to would also detrimentally affect another reasonable young woman in the same position; and (5) respondeat superior liability exists." While the Court held that the District Court's conclusion that Angeloni met the first four prongs of the test may have been "overly generous", it agreed that Angeloni failed to meet the final prong of the test and therefore affirmed the grant of summary judgment.
The Court, quoting Andrews v. City of Philadelphia, 895 F.2d 1469 (3d Cir. 1990), held that employing conventional agency principles, respondeat superior liability exists when the employer "knew or should have known of the harassment and failed to take prompt remedial action." It further held that the employer will be liable when "plaintiff proves that management-level employees had actual or constructive knowledge about the existence of a sexually hostile work environment and failed to take prompt and adequate remedial action." Applying these standards, the Court ruled that since Balint informed Bishop Dougherty of Angeloni's complaint, interviewed witnesses and suggested that Angeloni could be relieved of her serving duties at Reverend Hazzouri's table, she had taken "prompt and adequate" remedial action. The Court also found that Bishop Dougherty had taken equally adequate action in response to Angeloni's complaints -- having spoken with Reverend Hazzouri and Balint several times, relayed the situation to the Diocese, informed the Reverend that he was to cease any conduct that could tend to make Angeloni uncomfortable and approved the suggestion that Angeloni stop serving Reverend Hazzouri's table.
In sum, the Angeloni decision points out how critical it is for employers to take clear and effective action in response to allegations of harassment. It further demonstrates, that while an employer may be tempted to advise an employee, who is concerned about an allegedly hostile situation, that resignation is an option, the employer should focus on finding solutions that will be satisfactory to both the employer and the employee. Offering alternative methods for addressing the employees concerns will help prevent the employee from establishing a claim of constructive discharge.
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