Employer Not Liable for Employee’s Change of Heart

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Employer Not Liable for Employee’s Change of Heart 01 800x400 Employer Not Liable for Employee’s Change of Heart

An employee comes to you and says she wants to resign effective immediately. You accept the employee’s resignation, process the termination and make the preparations to pay the employee’s final wages within 72 hours.

Then, unexpectedly, the employee calls and asks to rescind her resignation. What do you do? Do you have to let the employee withdraw her resignation? If you don’t, can the employee claim you did something unlawful? These questions were recently answered by a California appeals court.​

The case involved an employee who resigned from her employment and then tried to rescind her resignation. Her employer did not allow her to do so. She then sued, claiming that the employer’s refusal to allow her to rescind her resignation was discriminatory because of her alleged disability (Featherstone v. Southern California Permanente Medical Group, 10 Cal.App.5th 1150 (2017)).

The Resignation

The employee had a medical condition throughout her employment and took a leave of absence for surgery toward the end of 2013. She returned from her leave on December 16, 2013, with no restrictions.

On December 23, 2013, the employee called her supervisor and said she was resigning effective immediately. The supervisor asked the employee to confirm her resignation in writing.

The supervisor notified the HR department of the employee’s resignation and was instructed to immediately process the termination paperwork so that the employee would be paid her final wages in a timely manner. The supervisor completed and submitted the termination paperwork later that day.

On December 24, 2013, the employee was hospitalized. She was released from the hospital on December 26. That same day, she sent an email to her former supervisor confirming her resignation.

On December 31, 2013, the employee contacted HR and said that at the time she resigned, she was suffering from an altered mental state due to medication she was taking. The employee asked if she could rescind her resignation. HR asked the employee to provide any documents she wanted HR to review related to her request.

The employee sent an email to HR on January 14, 2014, explaining the circumstances surrounding her resignation. She said that she was taking medication that “caused her to do abnormal things” and resulted in her being hospitalized for 72 hours. She attached a note from her doctor that confirmed she was hospitalized because of a “behavioral change” resulting from an adverse reaction to the medication.

The employer reviewed the information provided by the employee and concluded that there was nothing improper about its acceptance of her resignation and no facts required the employer to now allow her to rescind her resignation. The employer notified the employee of such on January 21, 2014.

The Lawsuit

The employee sued, claiming that by refusing to accept her attempt to withdraw her resignation, the employer discriminated against her and wrongfully terminated her because she suffered from a “temporary” disability at the time she resigned. The employee asserted additional claims, including that the employer failed to accommodate her alleged disability.

The employer moved to have the case stopped before trial (a motion for summary judgment). The trial court granted the employer’s motion, and the employee appealed.

The Court’s Decision

The issue before the court on appeal was whether the employer’s refusal to allow the employee to rescind her resignation constituted disability discrimination under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). The court ruled that the employer’s actions did not amount to an adverse employment action and upheld the lower’s court’s decision.

Discrimination Claims Require an Adverse Employment Action

One of the elements of a claim for disability discrimination is that the employee suffered an “adverse employment action.” An adverse employment action “materially affects the terms, conditions, or privileges of employment.”

An adverse employment action can take many forms and is interpreted liberally. However, there are limits, as the court ruled in this case.

Refusing to Allow Rescission of Resignation Is Not an Adverse Employment Action

The court ruled that there was no adverse employment action when the employer refused to accept the employee’s attempt to withdraw her voluntary resignation.

The FEHA is silent on the question of whether refusing to let an employee rescind a resignation is an adverse employment action, and no prior California cases address this issue. However, the court noted that federal courts have ruled that as long as a resignation is voluntary and there is no contractual obligation to allow the employee to rescind the resignation, failing to accept the rescission is not an adverse employment action because the employment relationship has already ended.

The court looked at the facts of this case and found that the employee’s resignation was voluntary; there was no evidence that the employer coerced or pressured her to resign.

The court also found that the employer had no contractual obligation to allow the rescission. The employment relationship was at-will so both the employer and the employee could end it at any time.

As the court explained, a resignation is an offer made by an employee to an employer. Until the employer accepts the offer of resignation, the employee can withdraw it. However, once the employer accepts the offer, the employee loses the ability to withdraw the resignation. At that point, it is up to the employer to decide whether to allow the rescission or to ignore it.

The employee in this case asked to rescind her resignation after the employer accepted it and processed her termination. Because the employer had already accepted her resignation, the employer was under no obligation to allow her to withdraw her resignation, and the employer’s decision did not amount to an adverse employment action.

No Failure to Accommodate

The court also ruled that the employer was not obligated to engage in the interactive process and provide reasonable accommodation for the employee’s alleged disability because the employer had no knowledge of the disability until after accepting the employee’s resignation.

An employer must provide reasonable accommodations for an employee’s known disabilities. The duty to provide accommodations is not triggered until the employer knows of the disability, either because the employee tells the employer about the disability or the employer otherwise becomes aware of the condition. Similarly, the duty to engage in the interactive process arises either if the employee requests an accommodation or the disability and need for accommodation is obvious to the employer.

The court found that the employer had no knowledge of the employee’s alleged disability at the time she resigned, nor was her alleged disability obvious to the employer. The employer only learned about the disability after accepting the employee’s resignation. Therefore, the employer had no obligation to engage in the interactive process or provide accommodation to the employee.

Handling Resignations

This case may have had a different result if the employer had not acted quickly in accepting the employee’s resignation or if the employee had tried to rescind sooner. Promptly accepting and processing a voluntary termination may prevent situations where an employee has a change of heart and tries to take back a resignation.

Best Practices

  • Respond promptly when an employee resigns.
  • An employee may present you with a written notice of resignation or may simply tell you verbally that he/she is resigning. A resignation doesn’t need to be in written form for you to accept it. If it is verbal, you should document the details of the resignation, including when, how and to whom it was given, so you have a record for your files.
  • Follow the final payrules that apply to employee resignations:
    • If an employee quits with 72-hours’ notice or more, you must pay all wages and accrued vacation earned but unpaid on the last day of work.
    • If an employee quits with less than 72-hours’ notice, you must pay all wages and accrued vacation earned but unpaid within 72 hours after notice is given.​​

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