Most Pennsylvania employment relationships in the private sector are considered legally to be "at-will" relationships. This means that at the will of either the employee or the employer (with no justification necessary) the relationship can be ended. The law simply presumes that both parties to an employment relationship can end it for "any or no reason." When can fired employees sue to recover damages for a job firing that they consider to be unfair?
Many limitations serve to narrow the broad legal theory that all employment relationships can be terminated at will. Both federal and state antidiscrimination laws protect an employee from being fired because of a discriminatory reason. An employer who fires an employee because of the employee's race, ethnic background, religion, age, sex, or disability can be ordered to pay the employee back pay and damages. In some cases, employees who have suffered discriminatory firing can also win reinstatement to their former job positions.
In Pennsylvania, employers also can be found liable for a "wrongful discharge" if the firing violates public policy. Under the public policy exception to the doctrine that employment is at will, the courts have held that an employer cannot require an employee to commit a crime, cannot prevent an employee from obeying the law, and cannot fire an employee if a law forbids the firing. Pennsylvania courts have found public policy violations where an employer fired an employee for serving on jury duty, where an employer fired an employee for refusing to take a polygraph test when administration of the test was forbidden by statute, where an employer fired an employee for refusing to serve alcohol to an intoxicated customer, and where an employer fired an employee for following legal mandates relating to reporting the use of nuclear materials.
However, the courts have rejected employees' claims where a sales employee was fired after he objected to the marketing of a product that he considered dangerous, and where a health service nurse-administrator was fired for reporting her employer for past Medicare fraud that she unearthed in "old, discarded files." In these cases, the courts found that the employees were not fired for obeying any laws, nor were they pressured to break any laws. When an employee sues for wrongful discharge, claiming a violation of public policy, the employee must prove that the firing disturbed a clear public policy articulated in the Constitution, in legislation, in agency regulations, or in judicial decisions. It is not enough to prove simply that the employer acted unfairly.
Recently, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court extended the public policy doctrine. The court found that where a lumberyard fired one of its laborers after he filed a workers' compensation claim, the firing was illegal. Although the Workers' Compensation Act takes away from an employee all rights to sue the employer for injuries that the employee suffers in the course and scope of his or her employment, an employee's loss of the right to sue is balanced by the Act's imposition of strict liability on the employer. Even if the employer was not negligent, and even if the employee was negligent, the employee is entitled to compensation. With almost no exceptions, an employee is entitled to compensation for injuries suffered at work, including payment of the employee's medical expenses and payment of a portion of the employee's wages for the period of disability. In finding that the laborer could sue the lumberyard for wrongful discharge, the court held that "the historical balance" created by the Workers' Compensation Act would be disrupted if an employer could terminate an employee for filing a workers' compensation claim.