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Intentional Interference with At-Will Employment

Most people are aware that Pennsylvania is a so-called “at-will” employment state. This means that unless a worker is subject to a collective bargaining agreement (i.e. a union contract) or has a written employment contract, the worker’s employment is said to be “at-will” and either party can end the relationship at any time and for any reason. Our office receives requests for consultations on wrongful termination cases frequently, but most situations do not give rise to a wrongful termination case.

Generally speaking, absent an employment contract or union collective bargaining agreement, in order to make out a potentially viable claim for wrongful discharge, an aggrieved worker would have to prove that the worker was discriminated against on the basis of a suspect classification protected by the Constitution or statute (race, religion, age, national origin, gender, etc.) or on the basis of a protected activity (whistleblowing, filing a workers’ comp claim, taking FMLA leave, etc.), or under circumstances in which a strong public policy is implicated (like taking off for jury duty). Unfortunately, under the Pennsylvania law of “at will” employment, it is not enough to show merely that the reason for firing an employee was unfair or erroneous. Your employer does not need a “good” reason to fire you, or any reason at all.

So it stands to reason that if you have no right to keep a job, if some outside person interferes with your employment relationship, you would not be able to maintain a claim against that person for interfering with your job, because you had no right to the job in the first place. This legal quandary has been rolling in and out of Pennsylvania’s court system for many years, but the Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently settled the state of the law.

On February 21, 2024, in the case of Salsberg v. Mann and Drexel University, the PA Supreme Court made it clear that one can maintain a lawsuit if an outside person intentionally interferes with an at-will employment relationship. The Court laid out the factual underpinnings of the case as follows:

Salsberg worked as an at-will employee for Drexel under Mann’s supervision from October 2011 until June 2017, when she was fired for unsatisfactory job performance based on Mann’s recommendation and representations. Pertinently, Salsberg began her employment with Drexel as a senior tax accountant in the Office of Tax Compliance (Tax Office). Salsberg received consistently positive annual performance reviews from Mann through 2016. In the interim, in March 2015, Salsberg was promoted to manager of tax/compliance. Then, beginning sometime in late 2016 or early 2017, the relationship between Salsberg and Mann began to deteriorate. The parties dispute the reasons for this decline in their relationship and the circumstances of Salsberg’s termination. Generally, according to Salsberg, Mann started exhibiting erratic workplace behavior and imposing increased work demands on Salsberg, which prompted Salsberg to meet with Mann’s supervisor, David Rusenko (Rusenko), about these concerns. Salsberg further claims that, in response, Mann manufactured performance issues—specifically placing Salsberg on a “performance improvement plan” (PIP)—and then used the performance issues as a pretext for effectuating Salsberg’s firing in retaliation for Salsberg’s meeting with Rusenko and based upon Mann’s personal animus toward Salsberg. In retort, Mann attributes the relationship’s breakdown and Salsberg’s firing to a legitimate decline in Salsberg’s work product and attitude in response to increased job demands.

Following her termination, Salsberg filed suit against Mann and Drexel, asserting, inter alia, a claim against Mann for intentional interference with Salsberg’s contractual relationship with Drexel.

The trial court had dismissed Salsberg’s claims, and Salsberg appealed to the Superior Court. The Superior Court affirmed the dismissal in a divided ruling. The majority reasoned, as one might expect, that “Salsberg did not have any reasonable expectation of continued employment guaranteed by contract” but rather, “any expectation of continued at-will employment is nothing more than a mere hope.”

The parties presented a number of arguments on appeal to the Supreme Court. Salsberg argued that people can be held liable for intentional interference with contractual relations as a third party to the employment relationship by engaging in conduct that is intentional, improper, without privilege, and outside the scope of their authority. Mann argued that as an at-will employee, Salsberg had no contract with which she could interfere, and even if she did, she was Salsberg’s supervisor and thus had a privilege or justification for firing Salsberg as Mann effectively stood in the shoes of the employer Drexel.

In its 41 page decision, the Supreme Court pronounced that yes, an at-will employment relationship is still a contract with which someone can interfere – even though the parties control the relationship, they should be free to do so without the interference of outsiders. So the Court explicitly recognized the claim for intentional interference with an existing at-will employment relationship by a third party.

The Court went on to find that, since the supervisor was an agent of the employer, and since a party to a contract cannot interfere with its own contract, a plaintiff cannot sue a coworker for the tort of intentional interference with contractual relations between the plaintiff and her employer unless the alleged misconduct of the coworker falls outside of the scope of the coworker’s employment or authority. The co-worker would have to be a “true stranger” to the contractual relationship to be sued. The Court held that Mann was not outside of the scope of her employment so as to be considered an outside third party.

While this case settles some long-standing debates, the full effects of the Salsberg decision will not be felt until years down the road. Someone who, without authority, tries to get an at-will employee fired from her employer, will certainly have to answer for such actions in court. Be careful whose employment you mess with, even if the employment is at-will.

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