Constructive Termination Claims by Former Deputy Fire Chief Dismissed

October 29, 2020

To the average citizen, being “terminated” from your job is a euphemism for being fired. If you resigned, you were not terminated. The law largely agrees. There is a narrow exception for working conditions that are so intolerable they amount to “constructive termination.” But a recent decision from the Central District of Illinois reiterates that this exception is narrow in a recent ruling.

The plaintiff was a former Deputy Fire Chief of a small municipality. He and his employer disagreed over his contract terms, especially his salary and requirements for his continuing education. Ultimately, the City offered a contract that paid him the same salary as the prior year, but included a stipulation that he would receive an extra 2% of his salary if he maintained enrollment in a college program. The plaintiff claimed that a medical condition made him unable to maintain his enrollment while working full time and asked for the extra pay regardless of enrollment. The City refused and told the plaintiff he had to either agree to the contract or return to the ranks as captain. The plaintiff signed the contract, retired a week later, and then sued the City for a variety of employment discrimination claims.

The plaintiff framed his suit as for “constructive termination” under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Illinois Human Rights Act, and Illinois common law. But the court saw the problem with such a claim: the plaintiff was not terminated. He voluntarily resigned. What is more, he was not subjected to workplace abuse, threatened with physical harm, threatened with termination, or required to risk his health and safety. The circumstances were well short of the extreme conditions, which must exceed those sufficient for a hostile work environment claim, needed for a constructive termination claim. Thus, all of the “constructive termination” claims were dismissed.

The Court also dismissed the plaintiff’s claims under the Illinois Whistleblower Act and claims alleging conspiracy and intentional infliction of emotional distress. It did allow the plaintiff’s ADA claim to proceed in a limited form. The surviving claims turned on whether the 2% extra salary if college enrollment were maintained amounted to a raise or a bonus. If it was a raise, the plaintiff would have a claim, while if it were a bonus, he would not. The plaintiff had alleged that the sum was a raise, and the Court could not rule otherwise based on the pleadings and contract language alone. Thus, this limited claim survived to enter the discovery phase of the case. Michael Condon and David Mathues represent the defendants in this matter.

Bruno v Wells-Armstrong, et al

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