In Pennsylvania, wrongful termination is typically referred to as a “wrongful discharge.” These types of claims are theoretically based on public policy motives. The Pennsylvania Courts have stated in dicta that no Court in the Commonwealth has ever recognized a non-statutory cause of action for an employer’s termination of an at-will employment relationship and most Courts have declined to create one. Despite this aversion, under Pennsylvania law there are numerous potential causes of action.
Pennsylvania Courts have indicated that an employee is entitled to a cause of action for termination of an at-will employment relationship only in the most limited of circumstances. This can only occur when a termination implicates a clear mandate of public policy in the Commonwealth. The plaintiff must allege that some public policy motive or goal in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is injured or undermined because the employers’ termination of the employee. The potential causes of action are very limited in scope, and the most likely one to succeed has been termination as a result of filing of a Workers Compensation Claim – essentially a retaliation claim.
Why do employers need to be concerned?
Primarily, employers need to be worried about any termination that occurs during a workers' compensation claim, or any termination that can be deemed retaliation for access to a Court or Administrative Court system such as the EEOC. Whenever an employer issues a discharge letter, or an employer indicates that they are going to be discharging an employee, this should raise questions in your mind as to the reason for the termination.
What steps can an employer take to prevent problems?
The best method of avoiding these sorts of claims is ensuring that an employer has a “reasonable business reason” for the termination. This must be articulable and provable. The real worry that arises from such claims is a termination of employment surrounding Worker's Compensation or access to Administrative Courts or process.
However, in Macken v. Lord Corp., 585 A.2d 1106 (Pa. Super. 1991), a Claimant alleged four claims against his former employer in connection with his discharge: (1) wrongful discharge in retaliation for filing a worker's compensation claim; (2) breach of a covenant of good faith and fair dealing for discharging plaintiff without good cause; (3) intentional infliction of emotional distress; and (4) negligent infliction of emotional distress.
The employer moved for summary judgment on the complaint in its entirety. The Court granted summary judgment as to Counts II and IV of the complaint, leaving for trial only the counts for wrongful discharge based on retaliation and intentional infliction of emotional distress, the latter of which was withdrawn at trial. Following a nonjury trial, the court found the employee failed to present evidence sufficient to sustain the charge of wrongful discharge and therefore granted a nonsuit. The employer had instructed the Claimant to return to work based upon a light duty work release. The Claimant refused this return to work and was terminated for insubordination. Notably, the Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the dismissal, noting that the employer's decision to terminate for cause was legitimate and not within the scope of any section of the Act. The Court Stated: “There is no cause of action for wrongful discharge provided there exists a statutory remedy and there is no violation of public policy."
This case is illustrative simply because it is clear that there must be a public policy foundation for the Court to allow a wrongful discharge claim to move forward. The bar in these cases for proving a public policy foundation for a claim is high.
What can an employer do?
One of the key issues here is that an employer must work to prevent any written information that would tend to demonstrate that the employee was terminated for causes related to the filing of the Worker's Compensation claim from being included in the employee’s file. Employers must have an articulable and reasonable reason for the termination. The more objective an employer’s reason is for termination of an employee the better. Employers may fire people on Workers Compensation – but must have a valid business reason.
One option available to employers is to establish a general policy concerning the termination of injured employees. Depending on the size of the business, an employer could establish an automatic return to work policy or have a defined period after a person is injured before making a termination decision to assess the recovery time required for the employee.
When an employer is faced with an employment termination decision, especially if the employee is receiving workers’ compensation, it is wise to speak with an employment attorney before making any decisions to ensure compliance with the law.