Reason to Believe: Employer Actions Send Termination Message

January 7, 2001 ( - A federal appeals court has reinstated a lawsuit alleging constructive discharge - finding that it was reasonable for an employee to assume that she was about to be fired after returning from vacation to find her belongings packed and her office being used for storage.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found enough evidence to sustain a reasonable employee’s belief that she would be fired if she did not quit.  In fact, the court said it was “perplexed” by arguments that nothing that happened to Victoria C. Leyva would lead her to believe her termination was imminent, according to the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.

Belief Relief

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) had accused employer Chicago Hospitals of engaging in religious discrimination by constructively discharging Leyva from her job as a recruiter because of her Evangelical Christian Baptist beliefs.  Leyva received good marks for her work until a Roman Catholic was hired as director of human resources, according to the EEOC.

The suit also claimed that the director ordered Leyva to remove from her desk two articles that the director deemed too religious – and falsely accused Leyva of disobeying instructions on handling her job duties.  Leyva’s direct supervisor was fired after he refused to fire her, the EEOC alleged.

The man hired to replace Leyva’s direct supervisor then called her while she was on vacation, became angry when she could not tell him the location of missing applicant scores and claimed that she had ignored directions not to refer people from her church for jobs with Chicago Hospitals.

Quit Claim

Following her return from vacation – Leyva found her office being used for storage – and then submitted a letter of resignation.

Chicago Hospitals countered that Leyva voluntarily resigned from her position because she refused to follow orders to stop recruiting employment candidates from her church. Chicago Hospitals also claimed it did not know who had packed up the belongings in Leyva’s office while she was on vacation or why they had done so.

Reasonable Inference

However, the court also said the evidence presented “could support the reasonable inference that the alleged constructive discharge was based on religious discrimination.”  That evidence included testimony that the head of Leyva’s department had referred to her as a “religious fanatic” and had made it clear that she objected to Leyva’s religious beliefs, according to the court.

In so doing, the court reversed a decision by U.S. District Judge Blanche M. Manning to grant summary judgment in favor of the University of Chicago Hospitals in a lawsuit brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

While acknowledging that the suit’s allegations were not the kind typically found in actions claiming constructive discharge, the court noted that constructive discharge also may be shown when “an employer acts in a manner so as to have communicated to a reasonable employee that she will be terminated, and the plaintiff employee resigns.”

The case is Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. University of Chicago Hospitals, No. 00-4065.