General Rules About Constructive Discharge/Constructive Termination in California
What is Constructive Discharge in California?
To begin, constructive discharge (also known as constructive termination) occurs when a California employer, for unlawful reasons, knowingly creates harsh, intolerable working conditions for an employee.
This leaves the worker no realistic choice but to quit, that employee may have a claim for constructive discharge.
Under this theory, you may have a cause of action for wrongful termination just as if you were fired outright.
Constructive discharge applies not only to at-will employees but also to many employees working under employment contracts.
In many of these agreements, if the employer acts without good cause to force a contract employee to resign, that individual may have a claim for constructive discharge.
When does Quitting Become Considered Constructive Discharge?
Unfortunately, too many California employees find themselves in the difficult position of wanting to resign their jobs because conditions at work have become unbearable.
Their employer may have unjustifiably cut their hours or reduced their pay. They may try to force them to quit through mistreatment, intimidation, harassment, discrimination or retaliation.
No employee should have to put up with that. But most employees caught in that situation will wonder:
- If I quit, am I giving up all my legal rights?
- Do I have to wait until I’m actually fired before I can do anything?
California is an “at-will” employment state, your employer can terminate you for any reason, and with or without cause or advance notification.
Likewise, at-will employees can quit their jobs at any time without explanation or advance notice. There are exceptions to these general rules, such as where the employer’s acts were motivated by discrimination.
Employees who have employment contracts or who are employed for a specific period of time are also an exception and are subject to different rules.
However, if you quit your job on your own, you usually give up certain rights that you would keep if you were fired.
- You may not be eligible for unemployment benefits; and,
- You usually lose the right to file a wrongful termination claim against your employer.
What is considered an illegal or unlawful termination?
In a wrongful termination lawsuit, you may be able to recover damages if your employer terminated you for illegal or unlawful reasons. Under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act, for example, it is unlawful to fire an employee based on the employee’s:
- Gender or sexual orientation;
- Nationality, color, or ethnicity;
- Physical or mental disability;
- Your participation in an official investigation against your employer;
- Religion or creed; and
- Other criteria as designated by federal and California law.
Wrongful termination cases typically require that you have actually been “fired.” If you quit, that usually makes this legal remedy unavailable to you.
However, there is an exception that can apply if your employer knowingly created an unbearable, hostile work environment to try to force you to quit. The doctrine of constructive discharge may apply and give you certain legal rights even where you thought quitting would eliminate them.
Why Constructive Discharge is Important
Fortunately, under California law, quitting is sometimes legally treated the same as if you’d been fired. This is the legal doctrine of “constructive discharge.” It means that sometimes a resignation will not legally be viewed as a bar to legal rights and remedies.
If your employer was trying to force you to quit by creating intolerable work conditions for you through unlawful discriminatory actions (such as mistreatment on account of your race, gender, age, disability, etc.) or retaliatory actions because you asserted certain protected rights at work, even if you quit, you may have all the same rights and wrongful termination remedies as an employee who was simply fired.
Legally, these kinds of cases are extremely complex, especially considering the evidence you must prove, so it is critical to retain a California constructive discharge lawyer.
You also may find some background information useful.
Elements of a Wrongful Termination in California
To succeed on a claim for constructive discharge, you must be able to prove at least three elements:
- Your employer was trying to force you to resign by intentionally and knowingly creating an employment environment that was intolerable and aggravated;
- This unbearable, hostile workplace gave you no choice but to resign; and,
- Your employer was motivated to get rid of you for illegal, retaliatory or discriminatory reasons.
Note that it is not enough that your employment environment is merely unpleasant. It must be so unbearable that any employee in your position would feel obligated to quit.
In addition, your employer must have known that you found the conditions intolerable. While it is not necessary to show that your employer actually engaged in the retaliatory actions, you must at least be able to show your employer knowingly permitted the intolerable conduct to occur.
Examples of Constructive Discharge
Because California sets a relatively high bar for proving that a resignation qualifies as a constructive discharge, it is important to recognize the signs that you may have such a claim after resigning. Some examples include:
- Repeated episode of yelling at an employee;
- Continuing instances of disparaging or intimidating a worker;
- Badgering and harassment;
- Reduction in the employee’s responsibilities;
- Changing shifts and hours;
- Unfair, unreasonable performance evaluations;
- Putting the employee at risk of injury through a work project or assignment; and,
- Transfer to a distant branch or department;
Note that none of these scenarios will, on their own, lead to a finding of constructive discharge. The determination is highly case-specific and based upon the particular circumstances. Also, California courts have held that some acts do not support a claim where not accompanied by other evidence, including:
- A cut in pay, hours, or benefits;
- Promotion of other employees;
- A single episode of mistreatment; and,
- Other acts.
We have more examples about Wrongful Termination in California in our latest guide.
Discuss Constructive Discharge with an Experienced California Employment Law Attorney
Even though a wrongful termination claim is usually off limits if you quit your job, you may have a cause of action under the legal doctrine of constructive discharge in California. If you do, you may be able to recover compensation for your losses just as if you’d been fired outright.
The lawyers at the Workplace Rights Law Group have the knowledge and experience to help protect your legal rights. This includes your rights against constructive discharge.
Please call (818) 844-5200 to schedule a free case review, so we can learn more about your circumstances and explain your legal options. You can also visit our website to learn more about constructive discharge, wrongful termination, and other areas of employment law.