Why it matters

An employer did not retaliate in violation of the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) by refusing to permit a worker to rescind her resignation, a California appellate panel concluded, even where she alleged she made the move due to an “altered mental state” from an adverse drug reaction. While recovering from surgery, Ruth Featherstone called Southern California Permanente Medical Group (SCPMG) one morning to resign from her job, stating that “God told [her] to do something else.” After Featherstone continued to behave erratically, she was hospitalized and it was determined she was suffering an adverse reaction to her medication. When she recovered, she sought to rescind her resignation. SCPMG considered but refused. Featherstone filed suit alleging the refusal constituted disability discrimination (based on her temporary disability arising from the side effects of the drugs) in violation of FEHA. But the court disagreed, granting summary judgment in favor of the employer and holding that the refusal to permit the plaintiff to rescind her resignation was not an adverse employment action under the statute.

Detailed discussion

Ruth Featherstone began working at Southern California Permanente Medical Group (SCPMG) in 2009. As a result of a tumor in her sinus cavity, she suffered from chronic sinus conditions and had previously undergone five surgeries to treat the problem. In 2013, Featherstone’s doctor informed her she needed to have another surgery.

SCPMG granted Featherstone leave to have the surgery and for recovery. She returned to work without any work restrictions, but one week later she called her supervisor to resign effective immediately because “God told [her] to do something else.” The supervisor did have to tell Featherstone to “slow down” during the conversation but did not think her behavior was odd.

The supervisor e-mailed Featherstone to confirm her resignation in writing, which she did. The company immediately processed the paperwork so that she could receive her final paycheck and other discharge-related paperwork in a timely manner.

Featherstone was hospitalized the day after her resignation when her behavior progressively changed. In addition to her resignation, she took off her clothes and walked around naked in front of others, repeatedly and uncharacteristically swore at family and friends, and took showers for no reason. About a week after her release from the hospital, Featherstone contacted SCPMG to inform the company that at the time of her resignation she was suffering from an adverse drug reaction and requested to rescind her resignation.

After consideration, the employer denied the request. Featherstone then sued in California state court, alleging the denial constituted disability discrimination in violation of the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) as well as public policy. A trial court granted summary judgment in favor of SCPMG and an appellate panel affirmed.

“[R]efusing 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 wrote.

An adverse employment action is one that materially affects the terms, conditions or privileges of employment, the panel said—and Featherstone was no longer an employee when SCPMG refused to rescind her resignation. California case law focuses “on guarding against employer conduct that materially affects an employee’s job performance and/or opportunity for advancement,” and not on “the terms, conditions, or privileges of his or her unemployment.”

With the text of FEHA silent on the issue, the court looked to similar decisions interpreting the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Title VII, where federal district courts have “regularly” found that an employer’s refusal to allow an employee to rescind his or her resignation is not an adverse employment action.

“The reason why ‘[a]n employee who voluntarily resigns cannot show that he or she has suffered an adverse employment decision’ is self-evident: Refusing to accept rescission of a resignation is ‘not an adverse employment action for the simple reason that the employment relationship has ended,’” the panel wrote.

SCPMG did not coerce Featherstone’s resignation and was not contractually obligated to permit rescission of her resignation, the court added. “Because Featherstone’s rescission request was made after SCPMG accepted her resignation, SCPMG was under no contractual obligation to accede to her request,” the court said. “Accordingly, under the totality of the circumstances, SCPMG’s refusal was not an adverse employment action.”

As the plaintiff was unable to establish one of the required elements of her prima facie case for employment discrimination under FEHA, summary judgment in favor of the employer was appropriate, the panel ruled. Because FEHA was not violated, Featherstone’s claim for wrongful termination in violation of public policy necessarily failed as well.

The court was not persuaded that Featherstone’s claim for failure to accommodate under FEHA should survive, either. When she resigned, the employer did not have actual or constructive knowledge that she was suffering from a temporary disability caused by an adverse drug reaction, nor should her managers have suspected that she was suffering from an altered mental state, the court said, as the reference to God was not inconsistent with her character.

Although a coworker reached out to SCPMG about Featherstone’s condition when she was hospitalized (and was informed by human resources that it could not discuss the situation as she was not a family member), that “lone, incomplete communication” not only occurred after Featherstone had resigned, but was insufficient by itself to put the employer on notice of her condition, the court added.

“[T]he conclusion that SCPMG was on notice of Featherstone’s temporary disability at the time of her resignation is not the only reasonable interpretation of the known and undisputed facts,” the panel wrote. “Because there is more than one reasonable interpretation and because SCPMG first learned that Featherstone suffered from the alleged temporary disability only after she had tendered her resignation and that resignation had been accepted by SCPMG—that is, after Featherstone ceased being a SCPMG employee—the trial court properly granted judgment as a matter of law.”

To read the decision in Featherstone v. Southern California Permanente Medical Group, click here.