Eleventh Circuit announces standard for voluntariness of an employee’s resignation
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Thursday, July 20, 2017

Eleventh Circuit announces standard for voluntariness of an employee’s resignation

In a case where a police officer alleged that he was “targeted” by a city’s mayor because of his political association with a city councilwoman, who was a “political enemy” of the mayor, the Eleventh Circuit identified the appropriate standard for determining the voluntariness of an employee’s resignation. Applying the new standard in Rodriguez v. City of Doral, the appeals court concluded that the employee was effectively terminated from his position, and had not resigned voluntarily, when he was asked to sign a termination letter with little notice, and with no reason given for his termination.

Political association. After the employee joined the City of Doral’s police department at the encouragement of the councilwoman, the two individuals developed a friendship, and shared a political affinity. However, their association drew the ire of the city’s mayor. The mayor described the employee as a spy in the police department. Thereafter, he was warned that he was being targeted. Further, he was warned by the police chief that he was to only have loyalty for the chief and the mayor.

The employee relied on four incidents to show that he was, in fact, “targeted.” The first two incidents involved investigations that resulted in “bogus” disciplinary action against the employee. In a third incident, the police chief changed an evaluation of the employee by his supervisor to reflect a more negative score. Finally, the employee was given a letter of resignation which offered no reason for his termination. After first attempting to rescind his resignation, the city denied all requests by the employee to appeal his resignation.

While a district court concluded that the employee had engaged in protected activity, it nonetheless granted summary judgment in favor of the city and mayor, finding that the employee had not suffered an adverse employment action because he voluntarily left his position when he agreed to resign instead of being fired.

First Amendment protections. In this instance, the parties agreed that the employee’s political affiliation was irrelevant to his ability to properly execute his responsibilities as a police detective. Thus, the appeals court focused on whether the employee presented sufficient evidence to allow a reasonable jury to conclude that the city discharged or constructively discharged him because of his political affiliation with the councilwoman in violation of his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

Voluntariness of resignation. The parties did not dispute the district court’s determination that the employee participated in constitutionally protected activity. Rather, the district court rested its ruling on the employee’s failure to establish that he had suffered an adverse employment action.

The Eleventh Circuit noted that the events that happened after the police chief gave the employee the termination letter necessarily raised the question of whether his resignation was voluntary. However, it had not previously identified the appropriate standard for determining the voluntariness of an employee’s resignation. It concluded that the test for voluntariness that applies in the context of due-process claims should also apply in the context of First Amendment claims. Under the due-process voluntariness framework, it is presumed that a resignation is voluntary unless the employee points to “sufficient evidence to establish the resignation was involuntarily extracted.”

Adverse employment action. In this instance, the employee alleged that he was under duress, and the defendants coerced him to resign. Based on a non-exhaustive list of five factors, the appeals court concluded that under the totality of the circumstances, the defendants’ conduct in obtaining the employee’s resignation deprived him of free will in choosing to resign. First, the employee had no “real alternatives” to termination. He was accused on no wrongdoing, so resignation did not save him from investigation or criminal proceedings. Second, the employee did not learn of his firing until the moment that he received his letter of termination. He was then given a mere five minutes to agree to submit his resignation.

Because a reasonable jury could conclude that the employee’s resignation was not the product of his free will, the appeals court found that he presented sufficient evidence to establish that he suffered an adverse employment action when his employment was abruptly ended.

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