“I Quit!” What You Need to Know About the Law Before You Resign
If you are an at-will employee, you have the right to quit your job at any time. And there may be compelling reasons to leave immediately. But quitting your job will affect your legal rights, so before you resign, here are some things to consider.
Can I collect unemployment?
You may not be able to collect unemployment if you quit. In Massachusetts, if you choose to resign, you will not be eligible for unemployment unless you show that you left (a) for good cause attributable to your employer; or (b) for urgent and compelling personal reasons. When you quit, the burden will be on you to show that you should receive unemployment.
Now that I have quit, I want to sue my employer. Can I do that?
If you have been experiencing unlawful behavior at work, you may be considering bringing legal claims against your employer for violating the law. If that is the case, you should try to consult with a lawyer before you quit or resign, because quitting may affect your legal options (and you may find that many lawyers are reluctant to take “quit” cases).
Generally, when you quit or resign, the law assumes that you acted of your own free will and does not hold your employer responsible for your lost job (or your lost wages and benefits or the emotional distress related to losing your job). To hold your employer responsible for the harm caused by losing your job, you have to show that a reasonable person in your shoes would have felt compelled to resign. The question is whether—based on an objective assessment and not just your feelings about the situation—the conditions under which you were expected to work were so difficult as to be intolerable or unbearable. To meet this standard, you usually must prove the employer engaged in a continuous pattern of behavior or acted in a way that is particularly unlawful before a court will find that it created an intolerable situation.
The timing of your resignation may also affect the analysis. Resign when the situation is uncomfortable but maybe not truly unbearable, and a court may decide you quit of your own free will. Resign months after the bad behavior has ended, and a court may decide your situation was not truly intolerable if you stuck it out for so long.
Can I go work for a competitor and hire my favorite former colleagues?
You may be quitting to take a new job. If so, do you know what your obligations are to your current employer? You may have signed many documents during onboarding or over the course of your job, and you may not remember everything you’ve signed or even have copies of them. Under Massachusetts law, you can always request a copy of your personnel record or an opportunity to view your record. Your employer must respond to a written request for your personnel record within five business days.
A lawyer can help you determine what your legal obligations are based on what you have signed. You may have signed a non-compete that limits your ability to work for certain competitors for a certain period of time. You may have signed a non-solicit, that limits your ability to recruit your former colleagues. Sometimes these agreements are unenforceable or contain certain requirements that your employer cannot enforce. A lawyer can explain to you what your obligations are and whether the employment agreements you have signed are valid and binding.
When I quit, can I keep copies of my work-related documents?
Generally, the answer to this question is a quick and emphatic, “No!” This includes anything that belongs to the employer, including “your work.” You cannot keep samples of your work without your employer’s permission, unless the employer’s policies provide otherwise or you work in a field where there is a common understanding that you own your work product (e.g., academia). In general, however, even though you did the work, it belongs to your employer.
And if your employer asks you to return confidential information that you have kept (inadvertently or deliberately), and/or threatens legal action, you should not ignore their demands and you may want to speak to a lawyer.
In a narrow and specific set of circumstances, you may collect and keep documents to support potential legal claims. The legal test for whether you are permitted to keep documents is designed to be flexible and has many factors, so you should consult with an attorney before assuming that you have the right to hold onto documents to support your legal claims.
Can you go on leave instead of quitting?
Perhaps you are quitting because you simply need some time off. Depending on the circumstances, you may want to consider taking paid or unpaid leave. In Massachusetts, you are eligible for paid family medical leave if you need time off for your own serious health condition; to care for a family member with a serious health condition; to bond with your child during the first 12 months after birth, adoption, or placement; to care for a family member injured serving in the armed forces; or to manage the affairs of a family member on active duty. You may also be eligible for leave, generally unpaid, as a reasonable accommodation for a disability. Your employer may also have specific leave policies that allow you to take leave for other reasons.
If you are thinking about leaving your job and want to discuss your legal rights, please contact our employment attorneys at (617) 742-6020.