Does an Employee’s Claim of Constructive Discharge Require the Employee’s Resignation? Does Mandamus for Reinstatement Lie When An Employee Resigns for Constructive Termination?

Kegerise v. Delgrande, 147 A.3d 930 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2016), 22 MAP 2017


Kegerise, the superintendant of Susquehanna Township School District, while on medical leave and after having sent letters to the school district stating that she had been constructively discharged, filed a federal complaint against the school district and its board members alleging constructive termination, and seeking damages for loss of contractual salary and other emoluments of employment, consequential damages for damage to professional reputation and loss of future salary as an educational administrator, punitive or exemplary damages, attorneys’ fees and other relief. Four days later, the school board accepted Kegerise’s resignation because in its view her repeated assertions that she was constructively discharged, including those filed under oath in her federal complaint, constituted resignation as a matter of law.

A few days later, Kegerise filed a complaint in mandamus in the Dauphin County court of common pleas and an emergency motion for peremptory judgment requesting reinstatement and compensation from the claimed date of resignation to the date of reinstatement. Several months later the trial court, after an evidentiary hearing limited to whether Kegerise had intended to resign from her position when she filed her federal complaint claiming constructive discharge, ordered reinstatement and back pay and benefits as if her employment had not been interrupted.

On appeal to the Commonwealth Court, the School Board argued among other things: (1) that the trial court erred in reinstating Dr. Kegerise because her federal complaint alleging constructive discharge necessarily constituted a resignation, which the school district properly accepted; and (2) the school district had no legal duty as to which it could be compelled in mandamus to reverse its vote and reinstate her.

The Commonwealth Court majority affirmed the trial court, reasoning that Kegerise’s federal complaint alleging constructive discharge did not constitute a resignation, and that mandamus was appropriate to command the district to reinstate her.  As to constructive termination, the court stated:

Dr. Kegerise alleged that a reasonable person in her position would feel compelled to resign. Thus, she alleged that the School Board’s conduct would force a reasonable person to involuntarily resign. It would be inexplicable to hold that the School Board is authorized to act as if Dr. Kegerise resigned voluntarily when she alleged that it created circumstances that compelled an involuntary resignation. As the trial court aptly noted, “the General Assembly provided a very limited methodology for removing superintendents and assistant superintendents in order to insulate them from arbitrary and capricious activities of the School Board and its individual members.” (Trial court op. at 4.) To endorse the School Board’s argument would essentially authorize a school board to create a condition that would constitute a termination as a matter of law, i.e., intolerable working conditions that would compel a reasonable person to resign, but permit it to proceed as if an employee executed a voluntary resignation. The School Board’s assertion would thwart the General Assembly’s deliberate removal procedure for superintendents and, therefore, must fail. Accordingly, the School Board’s argument that Dr. Kegerise’s filing of a federal complaint alleging constructive discharge constituted a resignation is unpersuasive.

Slip Op., at 6-7 (emphasis in original).

As to mandamus, the court reasoned:

Section 1080 of the School Code provides that:

(a) District superintendents and assistant district superintendents may be removed from office and have their contracts terminated, after hearing, by a majority vote of the board of school directors of the district, for neglect of duty, incompetency, intemperance, or immorality, of which hearing notice of at least one week has been sent by mail to the accused, as well as to each member of the board of school directors.

24 P.S. § 10–1080(a).

Although the School Code is silent regarding a school board’s authority to accept a superintendent’s resignation, the School Board’s action had the identical effect as that of the school boards [in cited cases in which a superintendent had been discharged or suspended without the hearing required in Section 10-1080]…. Although this is a fact-intensive case that implicates conduct the General Assembly did not apparently contemplate, i.e., accepting a superintendent’s resignation, we decline to endorse an implied procedure that could circumvent the School Code’s limited removal mechanism. Therefore, because Dr. Kegerise has a clear legal right to perform her duties as superintendent under the School Code and the School Board has a corresponding duty to reinstate her, the trial court’s issuance of mandamus was proper.

Slip Op., at 9-10.

Judge Pellegrini dissented, stating: “Dr. Kegerise was not removed but resigned, and mandamus does not lie to determine whether the School District properly determined that the actions she took constituted a resignation within the meaning of her employment contract with the School District.”  Slip Op., at DRP-1.

As to constructive termination, he cited Pennsylvania State Police v. Suders, 542 U.S. 129, 124 S.Ct. 2342, 159 L.Ed.2d 204 (2004) for the proposition that, to establish “constructive discharge,” the plaintiff “must show that the abusive working environment became so intolerable that her resignation qualified as a fitting response, ” and that  under this doctrine, “an employee’s reasonable decision to resign because of unendurable working conditions is assimilated to a formal discharge for remedial purposes.” Id. at 141, 124 S.Ct. 2342. In other words, an employee’s claim of constructive discharge is predicated on the employee’s resignation.

As to mandamus, the Judge Pellegrini reasoned “[o]nce she elected to resign and sue, the Board acted within its discretion to accept that decision and mandamus does not lie.” Slip Op., at DRP-13.

The Supreme Court granted the school district’s petition for allocatur, listing the issues, as stated by the school district, as:

(1)  Whether the Commonwealth Court majority’s holding that a claim of constructive discharge does not require actual resignation conflicts with the United State Supreme Court’s holdings in Green v. Brennan, 136 S.Ct. 1769 (2016) and Pennsylvania State Police v. Suders, 124 S.Ct. 2342 (2004)[?]

(2)  Whether the Commonwealth Court majority’s holding that a claim of constructive discharge does not require actual resignation conflicts with this Court’s decision in Pennsylvania Labor Relations Bd. v. Sand’s Ret. Corp., 240 A.2d 801 (Pa. 1968) or the Superior Court’s decisions in Kroen v. Bedway Sec. Agency, Inc., 633 A.2d 628 (Pa. Super 1993) and its progeny[? ]

(3)  Whether the Commonwealth Court majority erred as a matter of law and so abused its discretion as to call for this Court’s review in concluding that Kegerise had a clear right to relief in mandamus pursuant to Section 1080 of the Public School Code, even though Section 1080 is silent as to the District’s obligations in the face of a superintendent’s resignation[?]

For more information, contact Kevin McKeon or Dennis Whitaker.