Sunday, June 6, 2021

Don't say "I quit" unless you really mean it: Munker v. Louisiana State University System

 In 2015, Dr. Reinhold Munker was a tenured professor of medicine at the Louisiana State University Medical Center in Shreveport (LSU), where he conducted research in hematology and oncology.

Apparently, Dr. Munker's work environment was not ideal. After a staff meeting of faculty in the Hematology and Oncology Department, Dr. Munker approached Dr. Glen Mills and Dr. Gary Burton and allegedly accused Burton of not wanting him to do research. 

During this encounter, Dr. Munker said, "Well then, I'll resign, and I'll go to Minnesota or Washington where they appreciate me, and I can do research. I was brought here to do research."

Dr. Mills responded by saying, "I accept your resignation. I'd like a letter at the end of the day giving me your resignation date."

After that, a series of email messages suggested that Dr. Munker's colleagues did not consider Munker's remark to be an official notice of resignation.  

In one message, Dr. Mills said, "I prefer you to stay, but if you wish to leave then we will work out your departure date."

Dr. Jay Marion, Dr. Munker's department chair, also wrote an email message stating that "I wanted to clarify that I have not 'initiated' [Dr. Munker's] job termination or 'removal from tenure' as he suggests."

Nevertheless, three days after the verbal exchange between Dr. Munker and Dr. Mills, Dr. Munker received a hand-delivered letter from the director of human resources notifying him that he was being terminated "effective at the close of business today."

Dr. Munker sued, but a Louisiana trial judge dismissed his case. The judge ruled that Dr. Munker's statement that he intended to resign constituted a resignation:

I do deem his statement, oral statement that he will resign being sufficient and that the University did take him at his word and issued . . . a written acceptance via email that his resignation was accepted and effective on a particular date.

Dr. Munker appealed the trial judge's decision, and a Louisiana appellate court reversed.

"Contrary to [LSU's] argument," the appellate court ruled, "the correspondence indicates that neither [Dr. Munker], Dr. Mills, nor Dr. Marion considered [Dr. Munker's] statement 'I'll just resign[,]' to be an official resignation of employment."

The appellate court sent the case back to the trial judge and assessed costs against LSU.

Apparently, this dispute had a happy ending because Dr. Munker is now a is Professor of Medicine at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, where he treats patients and conducts cancer research.

I will say right now that my sympathies are entirely with Dr. Munker. The Louisiana Court of Appeals was correct to rule that the correspondence among the parties shows that neither LSU's employees nor Dr. Munker considered Munker's informal comment to be an official notice of resignation. 

In my view, LSU was wrong to seize on one casual remark as an excuse to terminate a tenured faculty member.  That decision led to three years of unnecessary litigation.

Still, Munker v. Louisiana v. Louisiana State University System is a cautionary tale for anyone who works at an exasperating job--and that is a lot of people. Usually, the best approach is to keep one's frustrations to oneself while quietly looking for a new job.  

In other words, don't say you are resigning unless you really mean it.

References

Munker v. Board of Supervisors of Louisiana State University System, 255 So.3d 718 (La. Ct. App. 2019).


 


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