By Kevin L. Connors, Esquire

A recent Commonwealth Court ruling in Owens v. Lehigh Valley Hospital, 472 C.D.2014, held that there is a cause of action in Pennsylvania for wrongful discharge of an Employee who has filed a claim for workers’ compensation benefits, but has not filed a Claim Petition with the Pennsylvania Bureau of Workers’ Compensation.

Owens worked for Lehigh Valley Hospital. She was terminated from the hospital, due to too many claims for work-related injuries.

She filed a Civil Lawsuit against the hospital, alleging that she had been illegally discharged for prior workers’ compensation claims.

Filing suit in the Lehigh Court of Common Pleas, the hospital responded by filing Preliminary Objections, arguing that since the Claimant had not filed a Claim Petition for workers’ compensation benefits, she was precluded from alleging a wrongful discharge for prior workers’ compensation claims.

Reviewing Pennsylvania Wrongful Discharge Law, the Commonwealth Court, in an Opinion authored by Judge Colins, initially addressed the fact that Pennsylvania does not recognize a claim for wrongful discharge, where there is no specific employment contract, as employment in Pennsylvania is considered to be “at will”, and an Employee may, therefore, be discharged with or without cause. Weaver v. Harpster, 975 A.2d 555 (Pa. 2009).

However, a public policy exception to that doctrine was recognized by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in its 1998 ruling in Shick v. Shirey, 716 A.2d 1231 (Pa. 1998).

In Shick, the Court held that an at-will Employee who alleges a claim of retaliatory discharge for filing a workers’ compensation claim can state a Common Law cause of action, for which relief can be granted.

Ruling on the hospital’s Preliminary Objections, the Lehigh County Court of Common Pleas entered an Order sustaining the Preliminary Objections, in the nature of a demurrer, resulting in Owens’ Complaint being dismissed.

Ruling on the Preliminary Objections, the Trial Court held that Owens had a three-prong threshold to establish a prima facie case for wrongful discharge, to include:

• That the Employee engaged in a protected Employee activity;
• That the Employer took an adverse employment action contemporaneous with the Employee’s protected activity; and,
• A causal link exists between the Employee’s protected activity and the Employer’s adverse action.

The Trial Court ruling relied upon a Federal District Court ruling in Landmesser v. United Air Lines, Inc., 102 F. Supp. 2d 273 (E.D. Pa. 2000). In Landmesser, the Federal District Court concluded that once the Pennsylvania Supreme Court had an opportunity to define the elements necessary to establish a prima facie case for wrongful discharge, it would adopt the test applied in Title VII retaliation claims, under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2.

Although the Commonwealth Court noted that Owens should have appealed the Trial Court’s Order to the Superior Court, and not to the Commonwealth Court, the hospital never objected to jurisdiction before the Commonwealth Court, allowing the Court, noting judicial economy, to decline transfer of the Appeal to the Superior Court.

In ruling in favor of Owens, the Commonwealth Court noted that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court first recognized, in Geary v. U.S. Steel Corp., 319 A.2d 174 (Pa. 1974) that an at-will Employee could have cause of action against an Employer for wrongful discharge, when the discharge threatened a clear mandate of public policy.

Shick was then the first time that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court recognized a claim for wrongful discharge in violation of the clear mandate of public policy, in the context of a retaliatory discharge for filing a workers’ compensation claim.

In allowing the wrongful discharge action to proceed in Shick, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court addressed the issue of “exclusivity” under the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act, concluding that the historical balance embodied in exclusivity would be superseded by an Employer’s ability to penalize an Employee for filing a workers’ compensation claim, such that the statutory right for compensation benefits would be completely undermined.

Opposing Owens’ Appeal, the hospital argued that Owens should have filed a Claim Petition, with the Commonwealth Court ruling that whether Owens filed a Claim Petition or not had no bearing on whether she could bring a Common Law claim, as had been made clear by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Shick, as well as in a related ruling, Rothrock v. Rothrock Motor Sales, Inc., 883 A.2d 511 (Pa. 2005), where a Supervisor was fired for failing to dissuade an Employee from seeking workers’ compensation benefits, with the Supreme Court allowing the fired Supervisor to file a wrongful discharge claim against the Employer.

Alternatively, the Employer argued that, under the Title VII analysis, Owens had failed to plead a causal connection between any alleged protected activity and her dismissal, with the Commonwealth Court holding that the factual allegations raised by the Claimant suggested a sufficient causal connection to allow the cause of action to survive preliminary dismissal.

The Owens Court also ruled that the Trial Court should not have analyzed the sufficiency of Owens’ claim under a Title VII test, as that same test had specifically been rejected by the Rothrock Court.

Consequently, Owens stands for the proposition that there is a cause of action under Pennsylvania Law for wrongful discharge of an Employee who files a claim for workers’ compensation benefits, even if they have not filed a Claim Petition with the Bureau.

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