Puerto Rico Supreme Court Holds Plaintiffs Bear the Burden of Clearly Asserting in Their Complaints the Elements of Constructive Discharge Claims

Constructive discharge is a form of wrongful termination under the Puerto Rico Unjust Dismissal statute, Act No. 80 of May 30, 1976 (“Act 80”). Unlike in traditional wrongful termination cases, plaintiffs alleging constructive discharge bear the burden of proof in establishing that the employer forced them to resign.  The Puerto Rico Supreme Court (“PRSC”) recently clarified that this heightened burden starts at the pleadings stage. In Margarita León Torres v. Erasmo Rivera Lebrón, 2020 TSPR 21, 204 D.P.R. __ (February 28, 2020) (Margarita León), the PRSC held that in constructive discharge cases, plaintiffs bear the burden of specifically asserting in their complaints enough facts about the elements of a constructive discharge claim to provide employers sufficient notice of what cause of action the employee is claiming and to allow them to prepare an adequate defense.

In Margarita León, the plaintiff filed a complaint for wrongful termination pursuant to Act 80 without setting forth any facts that would indicate she was constructively discharged. In her opposition to defendant’s request for summary judgment, the plaintiff included a sworn statement asserting a constructive discharge claim for the first time.

The PRSC confirmed the Court of First Instance’s Judgment summarily dismissing plaintiff’s claim and held that even when the constructive discharge allegation is subsumed in a cause of action for wrongful termination under Act 80, a specific pleading standard is required. The PRSC reasoned that it is not enough to simply state in the complaint a traditional cause of action for wrongful termination under Act 80 because it would not give adequate notice to the defendant that a constructive discharge claim has been asserted because both actions, wrongful termination and constructive discharge, have different requirements.

Furthermore, the PRSC held that Act No. 2 of October 17, 1961 (“Act 2”), which created a procedural process for the expeditious adjudication of employment claims in Puerto Rico, does not prohibit plaintiffs from amending their complaints so long as the amendment meets the requirements of the applicable Rules of Civil Procedure. The PRSC determined, however, that plaintiffs are precluded from any attempt to amend the complaint to incorporate new claims at the summary judgment stage.

Margarita León established an important pleading standard in constructive discharge cases, placing on plaintiffs the burden of asserting in the complaint enough facts that sufficiently notify defendants of that form of wrongful termination under Act 80.  As stated by the PRSC, this pleading standard is derived from due process principles and defendant’s right to prepare an adequate defense. Importantly, Margarita León addresses Act 2’s silence regarding amendments to complaints and clarifies the requirements for making these amendments.

Information contained in this publication is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or opinion, nor is it a substitute for the professional judgment of an attorney.