PA Finds Public Policy Exceptions to the Doctrine of At-Will

Many attorneys are often confused about wrongful discharge.  Disgruntled employees are constantly contacting me asking if they can sue their former employer for wrongful discharge.  While it used to be difficult to succeed with a wrongful discharge lawsuit, it is interesting to see how the Pennsylvania Courts have been interpreting the law in a way that allows employees to bring wrongful discharge lawsuits against their employer.  All practicing attorneys should be aware of these changes for future potential lawsuits.

Most attorneys already know that Pennsylvania is an at-will employment state. Recently, our Superior Court in Rothrock v. Rothrock Motor Sales, Inc., 810 A.2d 114, 117 (Pa. Super. 2002) reiterated that the general rule in Pennsylvania is that “an employer may discharge an employee with or without cause, at pleasure, unless restrained by some contract.”  This notion has been recognized since the Supreme Court ruled in Geary v. U.S. Steel Corp., 319 A.2d 174, 176 (1974), and courts have been reluctant to change it. See McLaughlin v. Gastrointestinal Specialists, Inc., 750 A.2d 283, 313 (2000) (noting that for over a century, Pennsylvania courts have recognized that an employer may terminate an employee for any reason absent a contractual provision to the contrary).

However, the Court in Geary set another precedent that has been evolving to this day.  The Court in Geary ruled that a Court may find a public policy exception to the doctrine of at-will employment.  319 A.2d 174, 180.  Courts to follow have interpreted the public policy exception to at-will employment to allow for more wrongful discharge lawsuits.  In Clay v. Advanced Computer Applications, Inc., 559 A.2d 917, 918 (1988), the Court expanded the decision in Geary and held that while there is no common law cause of action against an employer for termination of an at-will employment relationship, there are “the most limited of circumstances, where discharges of at-will employees threaten clear mandates of public policy.”  The Supreme Court addressed the issue again in Paul v. Lankenau Hospital, 569 A.2d 346 (1990) and affirmed the Clay decision.

To date, the public policy exception to the doctrine of at-will employment has expanded allowing more lawsuits to be brought against employers.  But the key question is what do courts consider as public policy exceptions to allow wrongful discharge lawsuits?

In Hunger v. Grand Central Sanitation, 670 A.2d 173, 175 (Pa. Super. 1996), the Court held that in order to state a public policy exception to the at-will-employment doctrine, “the employee must point to a clear public policy articulated in the constitution, in legislation, an administrative regulation, or a judicial decision.”

For example, the Court in Hunger held that if an employee is fired for performing a function that he is required to perform by law, an action for wrongful discharge on public policy grounds will be allowed. Id.; see e.g., Field v. Philadelphia Electric Co., 565 A.2d 1170 (1989) (employee fired for reporting a nuclear safety violation that he was required to report under federal law).  In Hunter v. Port Authority of Allegheny County, 419 A.2d 631, 635 (Pa. Super. 1980), the Court held that an employer could not terminate an employee based on a prior conviction unless that conviction was reasonably related to fitness to perform the job sought.   The Court in Highhouse v. Avery Transportation, 600 A.2d 1374, 1378 (Pa. Super. 1995) held that an employee was wrongfully discharged for filing an unemployment compensation claim.  In Shick v. Shirey, 716 A.2d 1231 (1998), the Supreme Court ruled that an employer who fires an employee in retaliation for bringing a workers’ compensation claim violates public policy and can be liable for wrongful discharge.

Recently in Weaver v. Harpster, 975 A.2d 555, 563 (2009), the Supreme Court held that public policy exceptions to at-will employment have been recognized where the wrongful discharge claims have involved infringements on statutory and constitutional rights, such as those rights protected under the ADA, ADEA, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (“PHRA”), etc.

A recent case was filed in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania by Christi Wallace, Esq. and David Manes, Esq., alleging that the client was wrongfully discharged for pursuing unemployment benefits.  It goes to show that wrongful discharge lawsuits are still being brought in the state of Pennsylvania.  While it may be true that 20 years ago attorneys were reluctant to file wrongful discharge lawsuits, attorneys shouldn’t be afraid to bring one today.  Courts are finding more public policy exceptions to the doctrine of at-will employment allowing disgruntled employees to seek the relief they deserve.

This article was first published on the Network on 3/12/14.