When an employee resigns, the employer is not obligated to allow the employee to change her mind without evidence that the employer “coerced” the resignation or somehow tricked the employee or engaged in misconduct. That’s an important ruling for employers, who sometimes face employees with “quitter’s remorse.” ™
Featherstone worked for a Kaiser operation. She had a medical condition that required her to have a brief leave for surgery. But she otherwise was not known to have any disability, particularly not any disability that would impair her mental state or cause her to make rash decisions. After returning from the short leave with no restrictions, Featherstone resigned her position. Several days later, she attempted to withdraw the resignation, claiming that medication had impaired her thinking. Kaiser refused to rescind the resignation. Featherstone sued for disability discrimination and failure to provide reasonable accommodation under the Fair Employment and Housing Act. The Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s grant of summary judgment.
Featherstone principally argued that she had a disability and that Kaiser was required to allow her to rescind her resignation as a form of reasonable accommodation. The Court of Appeal rejected that claim for two important reasons. First, the Court held that an employer’s refusal to rescind a resignation is not an “adverse employment action” which is a necessary element of the claim:
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.
Reviewing and quoting from federal case law, the Court continued:
unless “the employer forces the [employee’s] resignation by coercion or duress” or “obtains the resignation by deceiving or misrepresenting a material fact,” an employee’s resignation is “presumed to be voluntary,” and, therefore, the employer’s “failure to accept [the employee’s] rescission of her voluntary resignation [is] not an adverse employment action.”
The Court also explained that a resignation is an employee’s termination of a contractual relationship. Under normal contract rules, the employee can revoke the resignation before it’s accepted, but not once the employer accepts it:
“An at-will employment may be ended by either party ‘at any time without cause,’ for any or no reason, and subject to no procedure except the statutory requirement of notice.” (Guz, supra, 24 Cal.4th at p. 335; Lab. Code, § 2922.) Because the “ ‘the employment relationship is fundamentally contractual’ ” (Guz, supra, 24 Cal.4th at p. 336), California courts have similarly held that “[r]esignations are contractual in nature.” (Mahoney v. Board of Trustees (1985) 168 Cal.App.3d 789,799.) “As such, a resignation is an offer which may be withdrawn prior to its acceptance.” (Ibid., italics added; Civ. Code, § 1586; T.M. Cobb Co. v. Superior Court (1984) 36 Cal.3d 273, 278.) In other words, “[u]b California law, an employee has a right to rescind a resignation unilaterally (like any contract offer) only prior to its acceptance.” (Ulrich v. City and County of San Francisco (9th Cir. 2002) 308 F.3d 968, 975.)
Given the absence of an “adverse employment action,” Featherstone’s disability discrimination claim failed. The Court also rejected a “failure to accommodate” claim. First, the Court decided that Kaiser couldn’t be liable for failing to accommodate Featherstone’s desire to rescind her resignation because Kaiser had no knowledge Featherstone suffered from a disability that caused her to resign:
Here, when Featherstone resigned SCPMG did not know—actually or constructively—that Featherstone was suffering from a temporary disability caused by an adverse drug reaction. It is undisputed that prior to her resignation neither Featherstone’s direct manager, Sheppard, nor Sheppard’s supervisor/manager knew that Featherstone was suffering from an altered mental state. Nor could Featherstone’s managers have reasonably suspected that she might be suffering from an altered mental state. Featherstone returned to work from her sinus-related medical leave without any restrictions. Moreover, none of the work status reports that Featherstone submitted to SCPMG during her medical leave disclosed any information about her medical condition or prescribed medications.
The odd facts surrounding the plaintiff’s medical condition aside, this case is important for employers faced with an employee who resigns. An employer who accepts the resignation is under no obligation to rake the employee back because the employee ended the employment contract. However, that general principle could be inapplicable if the employee is not “at will,” or if the employer has a policy that permits employees to change their mind. Similarly, employers should be consistent when handling attempts to rescind resignations.
This case is Featherstone v. Southern Cal. Permanente Medical Group and the opinion is here.