Employer’s Refusal to Allow Employee to Rescind Resignation Does Not Violate Calif. Anti-Bias Law

Lack of adverse employment action prevents disability discrimination action from going forward

By Joanne Deschenaux, J.D. May 2, 2017
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An employer that would not allow an employee who voluntarily quit her job to rescind her resignation could not be sued for disability discrimination under California's Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), the California Court of Appeal ruled.

The employee claimed that she resigned while suffering from an altered mental state, which she said was a side effect of medication she was taking. For purposes of her lawsuit, the court assumed that the employee suffered from a temporary disability but ruled that the company's conduct did not constitute an adverse employment action, which was necessary for the FEHA claim to go forward.

[SHRM members-only HR Q&A: What is the California FEHA and what does it cover?]

Ruth Featherstone began working for Southern California Permanente Medical Group (SCPMG) in 2009. 

Throughout her employment with SCPMG, Featherstone suffered from chronic sinusitis, and, in October 2013, her doctor told her that she needed to have surgery to remove a sinus tumor. Featherstone took medical leave and returned to work Dec. 16, without any work restrictions.

On Dec. 23, Featherstone called her supervisor and told her that she was resigning from her employment with SCPMG effective immediately. Featherstone said that "God had told [her] to do something else."

Prior to her resignation, her supervisor was not aware that Featherstone was suffering from an altered mental state.

On Dec. 24—one day after she resigned—Featherstone was hospitalized for 72 hours. On Dec. 31, Featherstone told SCPMG's HR department that at the time of her resignation she was taking medication containing codeine for a cough and the medication "caused her to do abnormal things." She asked SCPMG to allow her to rescind her resignation, but on Jan. 21, 2014, SCPMG denied her request.

At no point after she quit did Featherstone reapply for her prior position with SCPMG.

Featherstone sued SCPMG, claiming disability discrimination in violation of FEHA. The trial court dismissed the claim before trial, and Featherstone appealed. The appellate court affirmed the dismissal.

Definition of 'Adverse Employment Action'

To prove intentional disability bias under FEHA, an employee must show that:

  • He or she has a disability.
  • He or she is otherwise qualified to do the job.
  • He or she experienced an adverse employment action.
  • The employer was motivated by discriminatory intent.

Featherstone could not prove that she experienced an adverse employment action, the court said.

The court noted that, in 2005, the California Supreme Court defined an adverse employment action generally as one that "materially affects the terms, conditions, or privileges of employment." (Yanowitz v. L'Oreal USA Inc., 36 Cal.4th 1028).

Therefore, the court said, "an adverse employment action is one that affects an employee, not a former employee, in the terms, conditions or privileges of his or her employment, not in the terms, conditions or privileges of his or her unemployment."

The court noted that the FEHA is silent on whether an employer's refusal to allow an employee to rescind a resignation constitutes an adverse employment action. But the court concluded that

"refusing to accept rescission of a resignation is not an adverse employment action for the simple reason that the employment relationship has ended." 

In reaching its decision, the appeals court stressed that Featherstone's resignation was voluntary—she did not allege that SCPMG coerced or otherwise improperly pressured her to resign. The court further noted that SCPMG had accepted the resignation before Featherstone sought to rescind it.  "Under California law, an employee has a right to rescind a resignation unilaterally (like any contract offer) only prior to its acceptance," the court said.

Featherstone v. Southern California Permanente Medical Group, Cal. Ct. App., No. B275225 (April 19, 2017).

Professional Pointer: The employee in this case never reapplied for her prior position. Had she done so and not been rehired, she could have brought an additional claim of hiring discrimination, which the FEHA also prohibits.

Joanne Deschenaux, J.D., is a freelance writer in Annapolis, Md. 

 

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