Wrongful Discharge Law in Pennsylvania

As an attorney who often gives advice to disgruntled employees about the legality of the employees’ terminations, I can say without hesitation that many people are confused about the state of wrongful termination law in Pennsylvania. It is first important to note that Pennsylvania is an at-will employment state. Recently, our Superior Court in Rothrock v. Rothrock Motor Sales, Inc., 810 A.2d 114 (Pa.Super. 2002) reiterated the general rule of employment in our Commonwealth:

Generally, an employer ‘may discharge an employee with or without cause, at pleasure, unless restrained by some contract.’ (Pennsylvania courts have recognized for over a century that an employer may terminate an employee for any reason absent contractual provision to the contrary). In this jurisdiction, “the law has taken for granted the power of either party to terminate an employment relationship for any or no reason.” Courts are reluctant to allow exclusions to the employment-at-will doctrine; exceptions are recognized only in narrowly-confined circumstances where a clear public policy is implicated.

From these “narrowly-confined circumstances” spring the cases involving wrongful discharge. They are few and far between.

“It is only when a given policy is so obviously for or against the public health, safety, morals or welfare that there is a virtual unanimity of opinion in regard to it, that a court may constitute itself the voice of the community in so declaring. There must be a positive, well-defined, universal public sentiment, deeply integrated in the customs and beliefs of the people and in their conviction of what is just and right and in the interests of the public weal.” Shick v. Shirey, 552 Pa. 590, 600, 716 A.2d 1231, 1235-6 (1998). As Judge Beck noted in her concurring opinion in Hunger v. Grand Central Sanitation, 447 Pa.Super. 575, 670 A.2d 173 (1996), “a public policy is one that strikes at the heart of a citizen’s social right, duties, or responsibilities and will be found only where the policy has been reduced to a legislative mandate reflected in constitution, statute, or regulatory provision.”

In sum, the courts are extremely hesitant to stick their collective noses into the employer-employee relationship. The ability of an employer to terminate an employee for any reason at all, as long as it is not an illegal reason, is almost sacrosanct. Nevertheless, our courts have permitted employees to proceed with wrongful discharge cases when public policy concerns are clear. The Rothrock case itself was about a supervisor who was fired for failing to persuade a subordinate to give up a workers’ compensation claim; the case affirms that both failing to persuade a subordinate to give up a claim, and that a termination of the employee for filing a workers’ comp claim himself are both against public policy. The Rothrock case also cites a number of lawsuits in which public policy was implicated; these include Highhouse v. Avery Transportation, 443 Pa.Super. 120, 660 A.2d 1374 (1995) (employee was discharged for filing an unemployment compensation claim); Raykovitz v. K Mart Corp. , 445 Pa.Super. 378, 665 A.2d 833 (1995) (same); Kroen v. Bedway Security Agency, 430 Pa.Super. 83, 633 A.2d 628 (1993) (employee was discharged for refusing to submit to a polygraph test as a condition of his employment); Field v. Philadelphia Electric Co. , 388 Pa.Super. 400, 565 A.2d 1170 (1989) (employee was discharged for performing his statutory duty to report violations involving nuclear materials); Reuther v. Fowler & Williams, Inc. , 255 Pa.Super. 28, 386 A.2d 119 (1978) (employee was discharged for serving on jury, which is required by law).

It is exceedingly rare to find a termination case where the firing was against public policy. Wrongful discharge cases generally don’t happen because employers are generally not so dumb as to fire someone who was exercising a well-known legal right or who declined to violate the law on behalf of the employer. More often than not, the employee can simply be terminated under the at-will employment doctrine. However, both employers and employees are well-advised to check with legal counsel before making a decision to terminate in a questionable case, or before giving up on the potential recovery in a questionable termination case.

Since Pennsylvania is an at-will employment state, pursuing employment discrimination claims can be very difficult. Presenting claims before the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC) or the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) can be challenging at best, and litigating employment cases in the state and federal courts presents unique challenges. The attorneys of Wolf, Baldwin & Associates, P.C. have experience representing both employers and employees in discrimination, sexual harassment, and other employment claims. We can also advise you about potential workers’ compensation or unemployment compensation rights. We can help victims of discrimination, and we can counsel businesses regarding actual and potential employment claims. Our lawyers can help you learn your employment law rights and protect those rights. Click here now to contact us, so that we can discuss your employment situation. We look forward to speaking with you.

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