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Wrongful Discharge Claims Expanded

On November 7, 2014, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court handed down Owens v. Lehigh Valley Hospital, No. 472 CD 2014 (Nov. 7, 2014), expanding the reach of wrongful discharge claims. Pennsylvania is an at-will state, which means that employees may be terminated for any lawful reason or for no reason at all. One exception to the at-will doctrine occurs if an employee has been wrongfully discharged in violation of public policy.

To state a claim for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy, an employee must allege that his/her employment was terminated because of actions that violate public policy. Pennsylvania courts have been very clear that this is a very narrow exception to the at-will doctrine. Accordingly, violations of public policy sufficient to state a claim for wrongful discharge have been found only in certain, very specific circumstances. For example, employers may not terminate employees for serving jury duty. Reuther v. Fowler & Williams, Inc., 386 A.2d 119 (Pa. Super. 1977). Other cases where a claim for wrongful discharge has been held to be viable include: Raykovitz v. K Mart Corp., 665 A.2d 833 (Pa. Super. 1995) (termination for filing unemployment compensation claim); Kroen v. Bedway Security Agency, 633 A.2d 628 (Pa. Super. 1993) (termination for refusing to submit to polygraph test); Field v. Philadelphia Electric Co., 565 A.2d 1170 (Pa. Super. 1989) (termination of employee for performing a statutory duty to report).

In Shick v. Shirey, 716 A.2d 1231 (Pa. 1998), Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court held that a wrongful discharge claim could lie if an employee were terminated for filing a workers’ compensation claim. The court reasoned that, because the structure of the Workers’ Compensation Act (“WCA”) required employees to give up the right to sue their employers in exchange for no-fault payments, the discharge of an employee for filing a claim threatened this balance, and violated clear public policy of the state. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court broadened this protection in Rothrock v. Rothrock Motor Sales, Inc., 883 A.2d 511 (Pa. 2005), to hold that a claim for wrongful discharge was viable if an employer terminates a supervisor for failing to dissuade an employee from filing a workers’ compensation claim.

In Owens, the Commonwealth Court took on another issue under the WCA. Here, the employee had not filed a workers’ compensation claim, but instead reported the injury to her employer, which made payments in lieu of workers’ compensation to her. She claimed that she was fired in retaliation for her report. The court held that, even though she did not file a workers’ compensation claim petition, as did the claimant in Shick, a wrongful discharge claim still would be available. The court reasoned that “[i]f an employer could discharge an employee for a work-related injury because the employee received payment in lieu of compensation rather than compensation administered by the Bureau, the public policy embodied by the [WCA] would be undermined as surely as it would have been in Shick and Rothrock.”

What This Means For You: Remember that, while employment is at-will in Pennsylvania, there are exceptions. Prior to terminating any employee, you should carefully review the situation to make sure that there are valid lawful reasons for the termination, and you should assess the strength of any potential claims.

If you have any questions about this or any other employment or labor law matter, please contact S. Whitney Rahman at (717) 509-7237, or by e-mail at swr@blakingerthomas.com

This update is provided for informational purposes only and should not be
construed as legal advice or as creating an attorney-client relationship
where one does not already exist.