Every once in a while, a difficult employee resigns, and his or her managers breathe a sigh of relief. The employer might have wanted to be rid of this employee, but there weren’t grounds to discharge the individual. But what if the employee wants to rescind the resignation—does the employer have to take the employee back? In Featherstone v. Southern California Permanente Medical Group, B275225 (April 19, 2017), the California Court of Appeals said no—once the employee resigns, there is no requirement that the employer allow the person to return.
The Facts: Ruth Featherstone worked for the Southern California Permanente Medical Group. She had had prior health problems necessitating her absence from work. Despite her absences, there is no indication in the Court’s opinion that she had any performance difficulties.
In mid-December 2013, she returned to work after an absence for surgery and recuperation. About a week after her return, she allegedly suffered a temporary disability due to an adverse drug reaction to medication. She claimed that while she was under the influence of this drug, she first orally resigned and then several days later confirmed the resignation in an email. At the time, her supervisors did not suspect that she was behaving abnormally and processed the resignation promptly so that Ms. Featherstone could receive her final paycheck in a timely manner under California law.
Unbeknown to any of her managers, Ms. Featherstone’s family noticed that her behavior was unusual, and she was rehospitalized. She was hospitalized for several days. On the day she was released from the hospital, she confirmed her resignation to her employer. It wasn’t until about five days after she confirmed her resignation that she told her managers she had been under the influence of medication when she resigned. Only then did she ask to rescind her resignation.
Despite the sympathetic circumstances of Ms. Featherstone’s request to rescind her resignation, the medical group refused to rescind it, because they did not think they had done anything improper in accepting it. As mentioned above, there is no indication of any problems with the plaintiff’s performance, so this reader wonders why the employer was reluctant to rescind the resignation.
Ms. Featherstone later sued, claiming disability discrimination and retaliation under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). The trial court granted the medical group’s motion for summary judgment, and the Court of Appeals affirmed for two reasons: (1) First, the employer’s refusal to allow the plaintiff to rescind her resignation was not an adverse employment action under the FEHA, and (2) the plaintiff failed to show that the management employees who accepted and processed her resignation knew of her alleged temporary disability at the time.
The Moral: In this case, the employer’s good-faith action in accepting the resignation was upheld. As the California Court of Appeals said, for an employer’s action to be found to be a pretext for discrimination, the employee
“ ‘cannot simply show that the employer’s decision was wrong or mistaken, since the factual dispute at issue is whether discriminatory animus motivated the employer, not whether the employer is wise, shrewd, prudent or competent.’ ” (Hersant v. Department of Social Services (1997) 57 Cal.App.4th 997, 1005.) To meet his or her burden, the employee “ ‘must demonstrate such weaknesses, implausibilities, inconsistencies, incoherencies, or contradictions in the employer’s proffered legitimate reasons for its action that a reasonable factfinder could rationally find them “unworthy of credence,” ’ ” and hence infer “ ‘that the employer did not act for [the asserted] nondiscriminatory reasons.’ ” ’
The California Court of Appeals first found that
“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 of Appeals cited a California Supreme Court case, Yanowitz v. L’Oreal USA Inc. (2005) 36 Cal.4th 1028, for the proposition that only actions affecting a current employee are covered, not those affecting a former employee.
“[A]n 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 of Appeals also cited federal authorities under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
However, I am not sure the Court of Appeals’ reasoning is persuasive—another court might well find that former employees are covered for at least some purposes. If I were reviewing an employee’s request to rescind his or her resignation, I would probably analyze the situation more deeply.
At the very least, an employer should at least be sure there is no element of coercion in the resignation, no sign of constructive discharge. In addition, the employer should be sure there is no express or implied contract of employment and that the employee is truly an at-will employee. Both of these possibilities were examined by the Court of Appeals in Featherstone.
This case also turned on the fact that the medical group had no knowledge of Ms. Featherstone’s adverse reaction to the drug when it processed her resignation. Had her managers had some inkling of this possibility, they might have had a duty to inquire and to accommodate her situation by permitting her to rescind her resignation made under the influence of the medication—the Court in this case did not have to address that situation.
While this case will be helpful to employers who want to stand by an employee’s initial decision to resign, it will still be important for employers to investigate the circumstances surrounding both the resignation and the request to rescind it. Ultimately, this case may be more helpful when good employees resign than when problem employees resign in a pique and later want to return—and those are the employees the employer might most want to lose.
Have you had to deal with an employee’s request to rescind a resignation? What did you do?