Philadelphia Employment Lawyer Explains When “Unfair” Becomes “Wrongful Termination”

We handle all types of employment claims – but we rarely see a good ‘wrongful termination’ claim.  That’s not because there aren’t a good number of terminations that are wrong, or unfair, but because Pennsylvania wrongful termination laws are very limited.  These laws apply to the entire Commonwealth; for instance, although Philadelphia has some local ordinances that protect employees under limited circumstances, but do not protect employees against wrongful terminations. The reality of employment is that it is often unfair; terminations for no reason or because your boss doesn’t like you, discipline that is unevenly handed out, favoritism, nepotism, and fear-based management styles are all examples.  Just because an action is unfair does not make it illegal, however.  Pennsylvania (like most states) follows the employment at will’ doctrine.  In other words, an employer can fire or discipline an employee in Pennsylvania for any reason, for a bad or ridiculous reason, for an unfair reason or for no reason at all.  ‘At will’ employment can benefit employees who want to leave; an employee can quit at any time, without notice and without any good reason, and go immediately to work elsewhere (even for a competitor, assuming there is no noncompetition agreement or trade secret issue). The ‘at will’ employment doctrine is very strong in Pennsylvania; for instance, it generally allows an employer to ignore the terms of their own handbook in setting wages, employee responsibilities, discipline and termination procedures.  An employer’s handbook is not a contract; they can change the conditions of your employment at will and without notice, regardless of what the handbook says.  For instance, you can work for a manufacturing company in Philadelphia with a thorough book of employment policies, including their own written ‘three strikes’ policy before termination, and yet be fired on the spot without warning – for something that the employer admits is not your fault.   In fact, Pennsylvania Supreme Court has held that Pennsylvania law “does not prohibit firing an employee for relying on an employer’s promise.” This seems very unfair to most people.  Every kid on the playground knows that if you set a rule, it is unfair if you don’t follow it yourself – and yet, in the real world (at least in Pennsylvania), there are generally no consequences when an employer ignores their own rules. There is a limit to this unfairness, however.  First, the terms of an employment contract can limit an employer’s ‘at will’ rights.  For instance, if you negotiate a contract that states you cannot be fired without cause, the ‘at will’ standard no longer applies.  Second, ‘at will’ employment does not mean that an employer can break other laws; for instance, no employer may discriminate against, sexually harass or deny vested benefits to an employee (this is where some of Philadelphia’s extra protections come into play).  Finally, the ‘at will’ standard can be overridden by a Pennsylvania court’s view of public policy. ‘Public policy’ is truly where ‘unfair’ becomes ‘wrongful termination.’  In essence, there are some very limited circumstances that are so fundamentally unfair as to give rise to a claim for wrongful termination in Pennsylvania – regardless of the ‘at will’ doctrine.  Pennsylvania courts don’t necessarily use the term ‘unfair,’ however – instead they will allow a claim for wrongful termination if it violates ‘public policy.’ What is public policy?  What do Pennsylvania courts find so objectionable, so unfair, as to override the at-will doctrine?   This area of the law is still developing, but there are some clear examples set by the courts.  These examples can be categorized as follows (these categories are of my own creation and are not set forth explicitly in case law; they are a tool to assist in general understanding of the law): Civic Duties:  Pennsylvania citizens have obligations to the public, such as the obligation not to commit a crime, to serve as a juror when called, etc.  Pennsylvania courts have seen these duties as a strong public policy.  Therefore, if you are terminated for refusing to commit a crime, refusing to commit perjury, serving jury duty, or for reporting a health or safety hazard that you are obligated by statute to report, then you can sue for wrongful termination. Personal Rights:  This is a tricky area; there are few ‘personal rights’ that can affect an at-will’ relationship.  However, some personal rights which are set forth in a statute – a written law – can be the basis for ‘public policy’.  For instance, Pennsylvania law states that an employer may not require an employee to take a lie detector test to maintain employment or become employed.  Pennsylvania courts have held that terminating an employee for refusing a lie detector test is a violation of public policy, and gives rise to a wrongful termination claim.  Similarly, terminating an employee for not disclosing a pardoned conviction is a violation of public policy.  I believe that Pennsylvania courts will eventually reach the conclusion that certain areas of an employee’s private life (who you vote for, what is in your private communications, certain medical information) are also protected – but this has not yet happened. Employment Compacts:  Pennsylvania employees enjoy access to unemployment compensation and workman’s compensation programs.  The courts feel that these programs represent a compact between employers and workers.  For instance, a worker is generally not allowed to sue their employer for injuries on the job, and in exchange, they receive Workers’ Compensation.  Pennsylvania courts believe that allowing employers to terminate employees for using these systems undermines the systems and robs the employees of their end of the compact.  Therefore, if you are terminated for applying for unemployment (generally in the past), or for applying for Workers’ Compensation, you can sue for wrongful termination.  Furthermore, if you are terminated for filing a claim under Pennsylvania’s Wage Payment and Collection Law, you can sue for wrongful termination (although there is a split in the law which may allow an employer to terminate you for demanding wages due, but before you sue – seems silly, but true). It must be stressed that public policy is not ‘what the courts think is good for the public,’ but what the courts believe is the public policy of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  The courts will look to Pennsylvania statutory law, regulations and constitution to determine what is ‘public policy.’  The courts also need to find that the public policy mandate is ‘clear.’ What is the reality for the average employee in Pennsylvania?  It means that your employer generally does not have to treat you fairly.  Is that bad management?  It certainly is.  Is that right?  It certainly isn’t.  Is that illegal?  Probably not.  The reality is that the best safeguard you have is not the law, but making sure that you have other jobs to go to.  Never tie yourself to an employer so completely that you don’t know what else is out there, and don’t have the skills to work anywhere else.  That way, when your employer is unfair, you can find an employer who has more appreciation for you and its other employees.

Call the Philadelphia Employment Lawyer at the Ezold Law Firm to Answer Your Questions about Wrongful Termination Cases

I’m writing this blog because I have a passion for the work I do.  Because Pennsylvania law allows for an enormous amount of unfairness, I have many opportunities to do the right thing and make sure my clients are paid for the work they do.  I became a Philadelphia wrongful termination attorney because that is where much of the ‘unfairness’ in employment law exists. If you have questions regarding wrongful termination in Pennsylvania, call the Ezold Law Firm at 610-660-5585 or contact us online to schedule a consultation with an experienced, knowledgeable Philadelphia employment law attorney