Worker Who Quit Can’t Pursue Claims of Race and Age Bias

 

By Joanne Deschenaux April 16, 2019
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An employee who voluntarily left her job couldn't sue her former employer for race and age discrimination, the California Court of Appeal ruled. Although the employee claimed that her supervisor made her job so stressful she had no choice but to quit, she didn't show that a reasonable worker would find the conditions intolerable, which is required for a finding of forced resignation.

In the absence of a forced resignation, also known as constructive discharge, the employee suffered no adverse employment action and so could not pursue her claims.

The employee is a white woman who was 49 years old when she left her employment as an operations manager with Christian Church Homes (CCH), a nonprofit provider of affordable housing. As an operations manager, she was responsible for managing various CCH properties.

She claimed that her supervisor, a black man, harshly and unfairly criticized her job performance and changed some of her job responsibilities, though the change resulted in no loss of status or pay.

Two days after the employee received a written warning for performance issues, she went on medical leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act. After her leave expired, she sent an e-mail to CCH, stating that "due to a forced resignation," she wouldn't be returning to CCH. She said she couldn't return to work because the stress of working for her manager was worsening her health issues.

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

A vice president of HR responded by stating that although the company accepted her resignation, it was not forcing her to resign and would be happy to meet with her to discuss her concerns.

The employee did not respond to the e-mail and subsequently filed a lawsuit alleging age and race discrimination, among other claims. The lower court dismissed the lawsuit before trial, and the employee appealed.

No Adverse Employment Action

To pursue a claim of age or race discrimination, the plaintiff must present evidence that:

  • She was a member of a protected class.
  • She was performing competently in the position she held.
  • She suffered an adverse employment action, such as termination, demotion or denial of an available job.
  • Some circumstance suggests a discriminatory motive.

An adverse employment action, the court said, "requires a substantial adverse change in the terms and conditions of the plaintiff's employment."                

Constructive discharge, when an employee is forced to quit, is a materially adverse employment action, the court said. However, the California Supreme Court has held that to establish constructive discharge, an employee must show that "the employer either intentionally created or knowingly permitted working conditions that were so intolerable or aggravated at the time of the employee's resignation that a reasonable employer would realize that a reasonable person in the employee's position would be compelled to resign."

The law does not guarantee a working environment free of stress, the state's highest court has said.

Further, the proper focus is on whether the resignation was coerced, not whether it was simply one rational option for the employee, the court said.

The standard by which a constructive discharge is determined is an objective one, and the proper focus is on the working conditions themselves. "Bruised egos and hurt feelings" are not part of the equation, the California Supreme Court has said.

The appellate court found that CCH established that no reasonable worker in the employee's position would have found her working conditions to be so "intolerable or aggravated" as to compel her resignation. The court noted that the employee was never asked or encouraged to resign, her job title and overall duties did not change during her employment, and her pay went up every year.

Although her manager was demanding, the court said, he was demanding of all workers he supervised, not just the plaintiff, and he never made comments about her race or age.

The court concluded that CCH showed that the employee was not constructively discharged and that she therefore failed to establish that she suffered an adverse employment action. The appellate court affirmed the trial court's order dismissing the discrimination claims.

Sanders v. Christian Church Homes, Calif. Ct. App., No. A152249 (March 28, 2019).

Professional Pointer: Unpleasant working conditions are not enough to support a constructive discharge claim. Instead, the conditions must be so bad that a reasonable employee would feel compelled to resign.

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

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