By Jill M. Laskowitz, Esquire
You probably need no reminder that your employees are human beings with lives, families, and relationships outside of work. As an employer, you may encounter employees who are parties to a lawsuit under the Pennsylvania Protection from Abuse Act (“PFA Act”), either as the plaintiff seeking protection or as the defendant. This article will provide you with a brief overview of the PFA Act so that you know what to expect in terms of who can file for protection under it, how much time the employee may need off of work, and how to adapt the employee’s responsibilities, if possible, to conform to a Protection from Abuse Order (“PFA Order”).
The purpose of the PFA Act is to protect victims of domestic violence from their abusers and to prevent further domestic violence. The PFA Act was designed to fill gaps in the criminal law with respect to abuse within a household or in other close relationships. In a PFA Order, a Judge can prohibit the defendant from having any contact with the plaintiff either directly or indirectly, at any location, including the protected party’s place of employment; evict and exclude the defendant from the plaintiff’s residence; award temporary custody or establish temporary visitation rights with regard to minor children; and direct the defendant to relinquish any firearms, weapons or ammunition to law enforcement, among other things.
To obtain a PFA Order, an individual must file a Petition for Protection from Abuse (“Petition”) identifying their relationship to the defendant and describing the alleged abuse. Individuals can only obtain a PFA Order against another person under certain circumstances: the person seeking protection must be a family or household member, sexual or intimate partner, or sibling of the alleged abuser. An individual can obtain a temporary PFA Order that goes into effect the day they file the Petition if they allege an immediate and present danger of abuse. In such cases, the individual seeking an order must appear before a judge the day they file the Petition to testify under oath that the facts they alleged in the Petition are true. This testimony is “ex parte,” meaning the defendant does not receive notice of the proceeding or have the opportunity to present testimony or evidence in opposition to the plaintiff’s testimony. Within ten business days of the initial filing of the Petition, a hearing must be held before a judge involving both the plaintiff and the defendant. To obtain a final PFA Order, the plaintiff must prove the allegation of abuse by a preponderance of the evidence.
If you have an employee considering filing a Petition, they could miss up to an entire day of work for the initial day of filing if they seek an immediate PFA Order and will need to testify in front of a judge the day they file. They will then be scheduled for a hearing within ten business days, as noted above. The actual hearing may not take place on the first scheduled date; it is common for either the plaintiff or the defendant to request a rescheduling of the hearing so they have time to obtain legal counsel or for other reasons. If your employee is the defendant, you should be aware of these court-ordered time commitments as well. Hearings may be scheduled for a specific time, or the parties may be scheduled before a judge for the same block of time as several other parties, where the judge sees one case at a time and the other parties wait.
In addition to the PFA Act, you should be aware of other laws that may govern how you handle an employee involved in the PFA process. Some local ordinances identify an employer’s obligations with regard to employees experiencing domestic violence. For example, in Philadelphia, an employer covered by the Philadelphia Promoting Healthy Families and Workplaces Ordinance (“Philadelphia Ordinance”) must allow an employee to use paid sick time for absences necessary due to domestic violence, including preparing for or participating in legal proceedings. Employees covered by the Philadelphia Ordinance can also use paid sick time to support a family member in legal proceedings arising from domestic violence. It is important to note that Pennsylvania law prohibits an employer from penalizing an employee who misses work for a court appearance as a victim of or witness to a crime or as a member of such victim’s family. If criminal charges have been filed in connection with domestic violence, this law would apply.
The safety and comfort of your employees should be one of your top priorities. There are a number of steps you should consider for employees going through the PFA process. An Employee Assistance Program can support employees through counseling and other resources. You can also develop a safety plan for an employee experiencing domestic violence, such as ensuring safe ways in and out of the building, an escort to the employee’s vehicle if they work late, changing their position in the place of work so that they are not public-facing if they agree to that change, and changing their phone extension. If the plaintiff and defendant in a PFA action are co-workers, you should determine the feasibility of arranging their schedules so they can completely avoid contact. In some cases, PFA orders can be amended to indicate that contact between the parties is not prohibited at work if the plaintiff agrees to such a provision. You can also consult with your solicitor, your counsel, or a domestic violence clinic to develop a safety plan that meets your employees’ needs at work and to confirm that you are meeting your obligations to your employees.
If you have questions about the Protection from Abuse Act or any other domestic issues, such as divorce, custody, or support, please contact the attorneys in our family law practice group.
**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. This article was published on October 30, 2020. Please be aware that the laws and regulations related to the COVID-19 pandemic are being updated rapidly. Please check back or contact us for the most up-to-date information.**