Quitting And Then Claiming Wrongful Termination Is Difficult

By harley erbe

Financial Stress

As a Des Moines employment lawyer I get contacted every week by folks seeking help with a wrongful termination, disability discrimination, or employment discrimination case. As I've discussed on our website, wrongful termination rights (outside of the civil rights context) are fairly limited because of Iowa's at-will employment rule. But sometimes the person has made their situation even more difficult by quitting rather than getting fired. When you quit your job, you've added an extra layer to the wrongful termination analysis since now there will be an extra fight over whether you were even terminated, as opposed to voluntarily quitting. Unless the court determines that your quit was actually a "constructive discharge," you'll be barred from seeking wrongful termination damages because you were the one who terminated your employment, not your employer. Proving a constructive discharge under federal and state law is quite difficult.

To prove a constructive discharge under federal law, an employee must show that the employer deliberately created intolerable working conditions with the intention of forcing the employee to quit. In addition, the employee must give the employer a reasonable opportunity to resolve a problem before quitting. Employees have an obligation not to jump to the conclusion that the attempt at resolution will not work and that their only reasonable option is to quit. Employees have an obligation to be reasonable, not to assume the worst, and not to jump to conclusions too fast.

Evidence of an employer's intent to force an employee to quit can be offered through direct evidence or through evidence that the employer could have reasonably foreseen that the employee would quit as a result of its actions. The employer can render working conditions intolerable through inaction as well as action. The intolerability of working conditions is judged by an objective standard, not the employee's subjective feelings. Courts consider several factors in evaluating the working environment in constructive discharge cases: (1) demotion; (2) reduction in salary; (3) reduction in job responsibilities; (4) reassignment to menial or degrading work; (5) reassignment to work under a younger supervisor; (6) badgering, harassment, or humiliation by the employer calculated to encourage the employee's resignation; or (7) offers of early retirement on terms that would make the employee worse off whether the offer was accepted or not.

Iowa applies a similar constructive discharge test. Constructive discharge exists when the employer deliberately makes an employee's working conditions so intolerable that the employee is forced into an involuntary resignation. To find constructive discharge, the fact finder, using an objective test, must conclude that working conditions would have been so difficult or unpleasant that a reasonable person in the employee's situation would be compelled to resign.

Generally, trivial, or isolated acts of the employer are not sufficient to support a constructive discharge claim. Instead, the working conditions must be unusually aggravated or amount to a continuous pattern before the situation will be deemed intolerable. Conditions will not be considered intolerable unless the employer has been given a reasonable chance to resolve the problem.

Constructive discharge claims most often arise in the civil rights context. But courts have applied the same principles in other general wrongful termination contexts, such as retaliation for filing a workers' compensation claim. The same standards would presumably also apply to more specific legal areas, such as Family and Medical Leave Act and disability discrimination cases.

By Harley Erbe

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