Wrongful Termination - Public Policy Violations- Pursuit of Workers’ Compensation Claim and Other Claims

Pennsylvania law recognizes the doctrine of at-will employment which means that generally, an employer may terminate the employment of an employee with or without cause (i.e. for almost any reason). However, an employer's right to terminate an employee with or without cause is not absolute, and there are certain exceptions such as when the employer and employee have a contract, there is a law which prohibits termination based upon the facts leading up to the termination (i.e. employment discrimination), or a clear mandate of public would be violated by the termination.

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania’s decision in Shick v. Shirey, 716 A.2d 1231 (Pa. 1998), was the first time the Court held that it is unlawful for an employer to retaliate against an employee for pursuing a workers’ compensation claim. In Shick, the Supreme Court decided whether Pennsylvania law recognizes a cause of action for wrongful discharge of an at-will employee for filing a workers' compensation claim. The Court held that an at-will employee who shows a retaliatory discharge for the filing of a workers' compensation claim has a cause of action against an employer. The Court reached this conclusion finding that the right to file a workers' compensation claim when an employee is injured at work is protected activity under Pennsylvania law. As such, an employer cannot take unlawful action against an employee based on the employee’s pursuit of a Workers’ Compensation claim.

In Shick, the Court reasoned that the Workers' Compensation Act provides a basis for finding that termination of an at-will employee for filing a workers' compensation claim violates public policy. In Shick, the court noted that exceptions to the at-will employment doctrine have been established when the discharge violates public policy and that a clear mandate of public policy evinced by the Pennsylvania Workers' Compensation Act is violated when an employee is discharged in a retaliatory manner for exercising the legal right to file a workers’ compensation claim for a job related injury.

In Shick, the employee sued his former employer alleging that he was wrongfully discharged from his employment in retaliation for his exercise of his rights under the Workers' Compensation Act. The employer informed the employee that he no longer had a job due to his pursuit of his workers' compensation claim. Following Shick, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court also held that since public policy prohibits the termination of an employee for seeking workers' compensation benefits, public policy also prohibits terminating a management employee for not coercing a subordinate employee into foregoing workers compensation benefits.

In order to prove what the law calls a prima facie case of retaliation, an employee must show, (1) the employee engaged in a protected activity (i.e., pursued a workers’ compensation claim); (2) the employee was terminated after or contemporaneous with the activity; and (3) a causal link existed between the protected activity and the termination of employment loss of his job. In circumstances where a decision-maker works closely with the employee exercising rights protected from retaliation, a causal link can be demonstrated. In addition, the timing of the filing of a workers’ compensation claim and the termination of employment is important. Courts had held where there is close temporal proximity between the protected activity of reporting a worker’s compensation and the discharge of employment, there can be an inference of unlawful termination.

Other Public Policy Exceptions to the Employment at Will Doctrine in Pennsylvania

When a policy is so obviously for or against the public health, safety, morals or welfare, a court may declare so and effectively void the employment at will doctrine. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has made it clear that courts have the independent authority to determine public policy in the absence of legislation in order to find an exception to the employment at will doctrine unless the legislature has already spoken on a particular matter. The Pennsylvania Superior Court, which is one level below the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has recognized public policy exceptions to the general rule of at will employment where an employee was discharged for filing an unemployment compensation claim; where an employee was discharged for the refusal to submit to a polygraph test; where an employee was discharged for serving on a jury; and where an employee was discharged based upon performance of a statutory duty to report violations involving nuclear materials.

We often successfully represent employees when their employers have retaliated against employees for pursuing workers’ compensation claims or violate a clear mandate of public policy. Call Abramson Employment Law at 267-470-4742 or contact us online to discuss your legal options for wrongful termination for pursuit of a workers’ compensation claim or where you believe the termination of your employment has violated a clear mandate of public policy.

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