Be wary of ‘Public policy’ exception to at-Will employment

While at-will employment is the standard in Pennsylvania, the right to fire an employee with or without cause is not absolute.

Your organization can be sued under state law if former employees can show that they were fired in retaliation for exercising a right protected by Pennsylvania law. That is the so-called “public policy” exception to the at-will doctrine, and it can catch employees off guard, as the following case shows.

Recent case: Paulette Benard worked as a deputy sheriff for Washington County until she was fired for allegedly stealing money from a purse. Before being fired, she had filed sex discrimination charges with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC) and the EEOC.

Criminal charges against Bernard were dropped when officials said there wasn’t enough evidence. Still, she didn’t get her job back. That’s when she sued, alleging wrongful discharge under Pennsylvania law because she was fired in retaliation for filing the earlier complaint.

The county said she was an at-will employee who could be fired for any nondiscriminatory reason.

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But the Pennsylvania Superior Court allowed the case to go to trial, saying that filing a PHRC complaint is a right given by Pennsylvania law. Because she exercised a right, it would be against public policy to fire her for doing so. When an at-will employee raises a public policy claim such as this one, she has a wrongful discharge claim. (Benard v. Washington County, et al., No. 06-527, WD PA, 2006)

Final note: While employers know quickly whether employees are filing a federal discrimination or retaliation claim (because charges have to be filed with the PHRC and EEOC within 300 days), employers may have to brace longer for state wrongful-discharge lawsuits. Pennsylvania employees have up to two years after the alleged retaliation took place to file a wrongful-discharge case based on the public policy exception.