I recently defended a typical wage and hour case that had a twist to it – the former employee claimed that his employer caused him to quit his job, resulting in a constructive discharge. A constructive discharge is a form of wrongful termination.
In a constructive discharge, the employer doesn’t actually fire the employee. Instead, supposedly, the employer provides working conditions so intolerable that the employee has no choice except to quit. That is what the employee alleged in this case. First, he abandoned his job and then, in addition to suing the employer for unpaid wages, the employee also sued the employer for wrongful termination – under the theory of constructive discharge.
What made this wrongful termination claim difficult to comprehend was that the employee alleged that the employer did nothing in response to the employee’s wage claims. The employer did not attempt to coerce the employee in some way. The employer did not retaliate in any way after the employee presented his wage claims to the employer. According to this employee, the employer did nothing – allegedly, the employer simply ignored his complaints.
So, this employee claimed that he had no real choice except to: 1). Keep working for an employer for less than all wages due, or 2). Quit, because the employer’s allegedly unlawful wage practices gave him no real choice but to quit. And, in fact, the employee abandoned his employment. And then the employee sued this former employer for unpaid wages and for wrongful termination – constructive discharge.
By suing for wrongful termination, the former employee sought both tactical advantage as well as inflation of the dollar value of his claims. In addition to the dollar value of his wage claims, the wrongful termination claim allowed the employee to ask for even more money, allegedly for his “emotional distress” as well money for “punitive damages” to punish this employer for its alleged wrongdoing. Punitive damage claims, depending on the facts, can be substantial.
I objected to inclusion of this cause of action, filing a demurrer to have it removed from the employee’s complaint. The Court sustained [granted] the demurrer, and the case settled shortly thereafter. Including this wrongful termination claim runs counter to the notion of at-will employment, that either party is free to terminate the employment relationship at any time. Labor Code § 2922. In this instance, the employee abandoned his job, then attempted to blame his employer for doing so. Unfortunately, this blame-shifting exercise may represent yet another angle of attack for plaintiffs’ counsel who seek to inflate the value of their clients’ claims.
It’s important for employers to thoroughly evaluate these claims at the very outset to determine all bases for defense of the action.