Employees often mistakenly believe that they have been wrongfully discharged by their employer when they have been fired as a result of conduct by the employer that is perceived as unfair or otherwise wrong. However, in Pennsylvania the employment relationship is typically “at-will.” In the absence of a written employment contract, employers are free to discharge employees or change the terms of the employment relationship for any reason or no reason. At the same time, employees are free to leave their employment at any time for any reason. As long as the discharge does not violate some common-law or statutory prohibition (such as illegal discrimination in violation of any number of anti-discrimination laws) employers are free to fire at will.
Wrongful discharge in Pennsylvania is a common law claim that only applies when an employer fires an employee in violation of a clear mandate of public policy. For example, in Shick v. Shirey, 716 A.2d 1231 (Pa. 1998), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court recognized a cause of action for wrongful discharge when an employee is fired for filing a workers’ compensation claim. Other public policy exceptions to the at-will employment rule include termination for filing an unemployment compensation claim, refusal to submit to a polygraph test, serving on a jury, performance of a statutory duty like reporting violations involving nuclear materials and making mandatory reports of suspected abuse or neglect.
In the case of Carlini v. Glenn O. Hawbaker, Inc., 219 A.3d 629 (Pa. Super. 2019), the plaintiff filed suit claiming she was fired for filing a workers’ compensation claim. The jury returned a large verdict in the plaintiff’s favor finding that the employer wrongfully discharged the employee in violation of public policy. The Pennsylvania Superior Court held that an employee who establishes a wrongful discharge claim may recover non-economic damages. Non-economic damages are those actual damages endured by the employee in the form of mental anguish, humiliation, damage to reputation, inconvenience, and emotional distress.
A successful plaintiff in a wrongful discharge case may also recover economic losses in the form of lost wages, benefits, and seniority. Punitive damages may also be awarded by a jury if the employer’s actions were undertaken in willful or reckless disregard for the employee’s legal rights. Punitive damages are awarded to punish the employer for violating the law and to send a message to other employers that illegal conduct will not be tolerated.
If you believe you have been wrongfully terminated in violation of the law call the attorneys at Bordas and Bordas for a free evaluation of your case.