Quitting After Embarrassing Email No Basis for Constructive Discharge Claim

A recent employment case involving home improvement giant Home Depot demonstrates that quitting your job following negative actions by an employer may not always lead to a viable constructive discharge claim. In that case, specifically, a supervisor was accused of accidently sending a group email about the plaintiff’s poor performance. Plaintiff’s resignation based on this incident was insufficient to support a claim of constructive discharge.

Wheeler v. Home Depot U.S.A., Inc.

The Plaintiff, Wheeler, had been employed with Home Depot for many years, ultimately obtaining the position of Store Manager. However, in the last few months, she was employed, she began receiving progressive discipline warnings from her supervisors for “poor store operations and appearances.”

In August of 2014, the district operations manager inadvertently sent an email to all of the store managers in the district, complaining of Wheeler’s poor performance. The email was intended for the district manager, informing the district manager that he believed she was “at risk.” In light of the mistake, the district manager immediately instructed the other managers to delete the email and then sent another email apologizing for the error. The district operations manager was also disciplined for the mistake.

Wheeler’s decision to quit

When Wheeler was made aware of the email mistake, she immediately notified an HR manager. The HR manager told Wheeler she should not quit because of the email. However, Wheeler responded that if they were going to terminate her anyway for the performance issues, why wait? When the HR manager asked Wheeler if she knew of anyone who might hire her, Wheeler took that to mean she was indeed being considered for termination.

Wheeler claims that she had already been taking her belongings home for about a month before the email incident, but after that embarrassing event, she decided to resign. She then sued for age and sex discrimination, retaliation, and constructive discharge.

What is constructive discharge?

Constructive discharge refers to a situation where an employee is forced to quit his or her job because the working conditions are intolerable. The basis of the claim is that those intolerable working conditions left no other choice. In order to prove a claim of constructive discharge in court, the employee needs to show that they were mistreated at work by their employer or co-workers, they complained to a company official about the mistreatment, but it still continued, and the mistreatment was “so intolerable that any reasonable employee would quit rather than continue to work in that environment.”

Did the embarrassing email create a basis for constructive discharge?

Based on the evidence offered in this case, Wheeler’s resignation was deemed voluntary. Although she asserted that it was a constructive discharge, she was unable to show “sufficiently extraordinary and egregious” working conditions. According to the court, the disciplines she received, along with the email regarding her poor performance, was not sufficient to meet that burden. Particularly, there was no evidence that Wheeler was subjected to any harassment as a result of the email.

Wheeler also asserted that the email was confirmation that she would be terminated. However, the court explained that the email was actually an internal document, not intended to be seen by Wheeler. As such, that communication did not constitute a final write-up. Regardless, Wheeler’s subjective anticipation that she would be terminated was not sufficient to support a claim for constructive discharge.

If you feel you have been the victim of discrimination or retaliation, or if you have any questions regarding your employment rights, please contact Wrady & Michel, LLC, either online or by calling us at (205) 265-1880.

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