Tuesday, July 21, 2009

employment - wrongful discharge - sex discrimination - covered employers

Weaver v. Harpster and Shipman - Pa. Supreme Court - July 20, 2009 (5-2 decision)


Under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA), 43 P.S. §§ 951-963, employers with four or more employees are prohibited from discriminating against their employees on the basis of sex. See 43 P.S. §§ 954 (defining employer), 955 (listing “unlawful discriminatory practices”).
At common law, an employer may terminate an at-will employee for any reason unless that reason violates a clear mandate of public policy emanating from either the Pennsylvania Constitution or statutory pronouncements.

In this case, we address the intersection of the PHRA and the public policy exception to at-will employment, namely, whether an employer with fewer than four employees, although not subject to the PHRA’s prohibition against sexual discrimination, nevertheless is prohibited from discriminating against an employee on the basis of sex.

Because the PHRA reflects the unambiguous policy determination by the legislature that employers with fewer than four employees will not be liable for sex discrimination in Pennsylvania, we are constrained to conclude that a common law claim for wrongful discharge, resulting from sex discrimination, will not lie against those employers. We therefore reverse the Superior Court.

Dissent - http://origin-www.courts.state.pa.us/OpPosting/Supreme/out/J-53-2008do.pdf
I believe the Pennsylvania Constitution, supported by statutory law, makes it unmistakably clear that the public policy of our Commonwealth simply does not tolerate invidious gender discrimination here in the form of sexual harassment with respect to continued employment.

For the reasons stated more fully below, while I would reaffirm the vitality of the at-will doctrine in our Commonwealth, I believe that we should join other states that have considered similar issues and recognize a cause of action for wrongful discharge, for those individuals who fall outside of the coverage of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (“Human Relations Act”), to redress a termination that contravenes our Commonwealth’s fundamental public policy against gender discrimination. Thus, I would affirm the order of the Superior Court.

Furthermore, a finding of a cause of action for those individuals who fall outside of the coverage of the Human Relations Act is entirely consonant with the conclusions reached by courts which have recognized a claim for wrongful discharge based upon a violation of public policy expressed in a state constitution, even when the state legislature has enacted an anti-discrimination statute which limits the size of the employer covered by the statute. See, e.g., Molesworth v. Brandon, 341 Md. 621, 672 A.2d 608 (1996) (upholding Maryland’s common law cause of action for wrongful discharge of an employee based on sex discrimination against an employer with less than 15 employees where public policy against sex discrimination was evidenced by constitutional amendment, statutes, and executive order); accord Thurdin v. SEI Boston, LLC, 452 Mass. 436, 895 N.E.2d 446 (2008) (concluding employee may bring claim for sex discrimination under state equal rights act where employer was not covered by Massachusetts’ state employment discrimination law); Collins v. Rizkana, 73 Ohio St. 3d 65, 652 N.E.2d 653 (1995) (recognizing common law tort claim for wrongful discharge in violation of Ohio public policy based upon statutory and judicial sources); Williamson v. Greene, 200 W.Va. 421, 490 S.E.2d 23 (1997) (determining common law claim for retaliatory discharge based on sex discrimination in light of West Virginia’s public policy found in state human relations act); Roberts v. Dudley, 140 Wn.2d 58, 993 P.2d 901 (2000) (finding claim for wrongful discharge in violation of Washington’s public policy against gender discrimination based upon statutes and judicial decisions); but see Jarman v. Deason, 173 N.C. App. 297, 618 S.E.2d 776 (2005) (concluding no claim of wrongful discharge for age discrimination in North Carolina relying on legislative prerogative but in absence of constitutional basis for public policy); Burton v. Exam Ctr. Indus. & Gen. Med. Clinic, Inc., 994 P.2d 1261 (Utah 2000) (same).