Friday, September 24, 2010

Wronged in the Workplace? Don’t Quit (if You Can Help It)!

Former JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater has become something of a polarizing figure over the last few months—a folk hero to some,[1]and a fraud to others.[2] While working aboard a Pittsburg to JFK flight that had just landed, the JetBlue flight attendant lost his patience after reportedly enduring verbal abuse from a passenger. Slater made a grand exit by grabbing a beer in each hand, deploying the plane’s emergency slide, and broadcasting his resignation over the public address system. He then slid away, got in his car, and went home.[3] Slater currently faces criminal charges for his actions. He is also reportedly in talks for a reality show in which he would “help other people quit their jobs in the most flamboyant way possible.” [4]

For those exasperated with their jobs, Slater’s story may be inspiring—he lived out a fantasy many have at one time or another during their working lives. Telling the boss what you really think of him or her and making a grand exit may sound like a satisfying finish to a frustrating job. However, from a legal perspective, this almost never benefits any potential employment claims you may have premised on wrongful termination. More often, it is likely to foreclose many claims that you would otherwise have been able to plead. Why is this? Simply put, you cannot challenge a termination, except in very limited circumstances, if you quit.

Employees can sometimes still claim wrongful termination if they quit under circumstances referred to as “constructive discharge.” To sustain a constructive discharge claim under California law, an employee must show:

  1. The conditions or actions of the employer were so intolerable or aggravated that a reasonable person in her position would have resigned
  2. The employer actually knew of the conditions, and
  3. The employer could have remedied the situation but did not. [5]
Furthermore, a single or trivial incident of misconduct by an employer is not enough to establish a claim. [6] The California Supreme Court in Turner v. Anheuser-Busch emphasized that “[t]he conditions giving rise to the resignation must be sufficiently extraordinary and egregious to overcome the normal motivation of a competent, diligent, and reasonable employee to remain on the job to earn a livelihood and to serve his or her employer. The proper focus is on whether the resignation was coerced, not whether it was simply one rational option for the employee.” [7]

Though many workers may feel like their workplace is intolerable, the standard to show this in court is very high. Some examples of situations that have been found not to be constructive discharge include receiving a poor performance rating, accompanied by a demotion and reduction in pay; [8] reducing compensation and a changed annual bonus structure; [9] and, being sexually harassed by a supervisor, as long as the employer issues the supervisor a letter of reprimand. [10] Therefore, by and large, a constructive discharge claim is a loser.

A final consideration, if you are thinking of quitting your job, is that it can be far more difficult to receive unemployment insurance if you resign, depending on your situation. [11]

If you think your rights have been violated in the workplace, contact an attorney at Bryan Schwartz Law right away, before you make the decision to quit.


[1] As an example, see Newsweek’s Seven Reasons We Love Steven Slater, available at

[2] See, e.g.,

[3] Note that his story has not been substantiated by subsequent investigations. See


[5] Turner v. Anheuser-Busch, Inc. (1994) 7 Cal.4th 1238

[6] Id.

[7] Turner, 7 Cal.4th at 1246 (emphasis added)

[8] Id. at 1247

[9] King v. AC & R Advertising (9th Cir. 1995) 65 F.3d 764, 767

[10] Casenas v. Fujisawa USA, Inc. (1997) 58 Cal.App.4th 101, 110

[11] See California Employment Development Department website.