The California legislature and judiciary have rendered some rather absurd new regulations and laws impacting business owners over the course of the last 20 years. So much so, that business owners have come to expect pro-employee and anti-employer decisions on a regular basis. This pattern and practice also explains why businesses celebrate when common sense and rational thought factor into a court's decision in an employment law dispute. One such example of a logical and rational court decision was recently handed down by the Second Appellate District in a case that examined when an employee's resignation, really amounted to a resignation.
Ruth Featherstone had worked for a division of Kaiser Permanente (SCPMG) for four years before taking a leave of absence to have surgery on her sinuses. SCPMG granted Featherstone a leave of absence to have her surgery, recuperate and return to her regular duties. Fewer than three weeks following her return to work, Mrs. Featherstone resigned – not once, but twice. The first resignation took place during a telephone conversation when Featherstone told her supervisor that "God had told [her] to do something else" with her life, and that she was resigning her position at SCPMG, effective immediately. That afternoon, Featherstone posted to her Facebook account that she had resigned from her position to "do God's work." Three days later, Featherstone confirmed her decision to resign effective as of the date she tendered her verbal resignation. Five days after she submitted her second, written resignation, Featherstone contacted the human resources department for SCPMG asking to rescind her tendered resignation. By that point, the company had accepted her voluntary resignation, prepared and delivered her final paycheck and taken steps to replace her position in the office.
Featherstone told the HR representative that she had experienced a "relatively uncommon side effect of the medication" she had been taking following her sinus surgery. According to Featherstone, this alleged "adverse drug reaction" to cough syrup with codeine caused her to suffer from an "altered mental state." It was during this alleged "altered state" that she tendered both resignations. She further advised the HR representative, that her doctor discovered that she had "PCP and cocaine in her system that caused [her] to behave so wildly due to the Phenergan with codeine." She indicated it was for these reasons that she had been institutionalized for 72 hours in a mental health facility – which is where she had tendered her written confirmation of resignation.
SCPMG did not allow Featherstone to rescind her resignation, but was told that she would be eligible for re-hire if she sought another available position. Featherstone did not re-apply for any position at SCPMG. Rather, Featherstone sued for discrimination and wrongful termination in violation of public policy. The basis of her claim was that SCPMG knew that she suffered from a "temporary disability" following her surgery, which required accommodation – including an allowance for her to rescind her two resignation attempts.
After losing at the trial court level, Featherstone appealed her case to the Second Appellate District, which ultimately held: "Assuming, arguendo, that a temporary disability, such as the one Featherstone allegedly suffered from, qualifies as a disability under the FEHA [California Fair Employment and Housing Act], summary judgment in favor of SCPMG on Featherstone's disability claim was appropriate because 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." Featherstone v. Southern California Permanente Medical Group (April 19, 2017) __ Cal App. 4th ___, page 13.
In short, while each of these discrimination/retaliation/wrongful termination cases always turn on the facts of the case, employers can now rest easy knowing that refusing to allow an employee to rescind a voluntary resignation (presuming there is no untoward coercion forcing the resignation) is not an adverse employment action, which could lead to liability. Keeping in mind, though, that every termination in California carries some level of risk for the employer, consultation with a knowledgeable employment law attorney is essential to keep your business, in business, and away from the courtroom.
In case you are interested in a fun read, or an exercise in sound legal reasoning, the entire Featherstone opinion from the Court of Appeal can be found here.