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Refusal to Rescind Employee’s Voluntary Resignation Is Not an Adverse Employment Action Under FEHA

4/24/2017 Articles

An employer’s refusal to accept a former employee’s resignation rescission request is not an adverse employment action under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), according to a California Court of Appeal holding. This opinion addresses a common dilemma employers face when employees resign only to later change their minds and seek to return to work.

Background

From October to December 2013, the plaintiff Ruth Featherstone had taken a medical leave of absence from the defendant, Southern California Permanente Medical Group (SCPMG), to undergo surgery. She returned from leave in December 2013 without any work restrictions. A week later, Featherstone announced her resignation effective immediately. A few days later, she confirmed her resignation in an e-mail to her supervisor. Featherstone later alleged that at the time of her resignation, she was suffering from an “altered mental state” caused by an “adverse drug reaction.” But it was undisputed that Featherstone’s supervisors were unaware that Featherstone was suffering from such an altered mental state at the time of her resignation. A few days after confirming her resignation in writing, Featherstone asked SCPMG to rescind it. SCPMG declined to do so.

Featherstone then sued, alleging that SCPMG acted with discriminatory animus by refusing to allow her to rescind her resignation, in violation of the FEHA. Featherstone alleged five causes of action: (a) disability discrimination; (b) failure to prevent discrimination; (c) failure to accommodate a disability; (d) failure to engage in the interactive process; and (e) wrongful termination in violation of public policy.

SCPMG moved for summary judgment on all claims, and the trial court granted the motion.

The California Court of Appeal affirmed. The court concluded as a matter of law that SCPMG’s refusal to allow Featherstone to rescind her resignation was not an adverse employment action under the FEHA. It assumed, without deciding, that Featherstone’s alleged temporary altered mental state qualified as a disability under FEHA. But even making that assumption, “refusing to allow a former employee to rescind a voluntary discharge—that is, a resignation free of employer coercion or misconduct—is not an adverse employment action.” The court cited the California Supreme Court’s definition of adverse employment action as one that “materially affects the terms, conditions, or privileges of employment,” not “the terms, conditions or privileges of his or her unemployment.” Refusing to accept rescission of resignation is not an adverse employment action because, simply, the employment relationship has ended. The court emphasized that Featherstone’s resignation was not coerced by SCPMG, and that SCPMG was under no contractual obligation to permit rescission of Featherstone’s resignation.

Significance

The court’s legal holding is significant because it purports to remove an employer’s refusal to allow a former employee to rescind a voluntary resignation from the definition of “adverse employment action”—presumably even if the employee can establish an improper motivation for that refusal. Of course, if the plaintiff can establish an improper motivation for refusing to rescind a resignation, the plaintiff may have other claims such as a discriminatory failure to hire. But, at least for disability discrimination claims like Featherstone’s that depend on proving an adverse employment action during employment, the Featherstone decision makes it easier for employers to obtain summary judgment by attacking that element of the plaintiff’s case. The decision should also apply to other causes of action, such as retaliation, that require establishing an adverse employment action as an element of the claim.

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