Have I Been Wrongfully Discharged?
We often receive calls from employees who have been “wrongfully terminated” from their jobs. Many of these unfortunate people have performed their jobs for many years without incident and then out of the blue they are let go. Others have been employed for short periods, have had no prior warnings or discipline and they are terminated without prior notice. Many of these employees feel they were “discriminated” against because other employees who did the same things were not discharged. We are often asked whether it is lawful for employers to fire employees without warning or without a significant history of prior discipline. The unfortunate answer is most times there is no legal recourse to challenge “wrongful terminations” because Pennsylvania is an “at will” employment state. This means that the employee works “at the will” of the employer and the employer can terminate them for almost any reason they want – whether that reason is fair or unfair. There are some exceptions however.
- Union Membership
If you are a member of a Union and your Union has a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with your employer, the CBA may have a “just cause” provision that prevents an employer from terminating an employee without just cause. Being part of a Union is the best protection an employee can have when it comes to preserving their job and protecting themselves from “wrongful terminations.” If you have been terminated and are covered by a Union CBA, you will normally be required to file a grievance. There are normally time lines that must be followed, however, so it is important to discuss you situation with a Union representative who will know your rights under the contract.
- Contract with the Employer
A second exception would be if you have your own contract with your employer. This is more common for people who work in sales and in some technical and professional positions where the employee has special skills that are required by the employer.
- Civil Rights Violations
A third exception would be for employees who are members of a class of people who are protected under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, Federal Civil Rights act, or local ordinances. These laws often protect employees from adverse employment actions on the basis of an employee’s membership in a class of people who are protected by the aforementioned laws. Those classes can include race, national origin, religion, age, disability, gender and sometimes, sexual orientation. In other words, employers cannot fire an employee because of their color, gender, religion etc., however it is the employee’s burden to prove that they were fired because they were in a protected class and not because of a legitimate non- discriminatory reason. It’s not enough to prove that you were treated differently than other employees, you must prove that you were treated differently because of your membership in a protected class. If you have suffered an adverse employment action, which could include discharge, suspension or any other type of action that negatively affects your job, you must file a complaint within 180 days with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC) and/or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
- Public Policy Exception
Another exception to the at-will employment status of the employees includes Pennsylvania’s “Public Policy” exception. Under the Public Policy exception, an employer can be liable to an employee when the employee is terminated for conduct protected by a specific state or federal statute or regulation. Examples include employees terminated for: not taking a lie detector test; reporting safety violations to OSHA; filing for unemployment compensation; and serving on jury duty.
It is important to note that every termination is different and even if your discharge does not fall into any of the above categories there may be other options available to employees. For example, if you have an open workers compensation claim or were hurt on the job, but no claim was opened, you may still be able to file a Pennsylvania workers compensation claim against the former employer and receive WC benefits. If you believe you may have a Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation claim, it is important to discuss this potential claim with an experienced Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Attorney. Also, you may be eligible for unemployment compensation. If you file an unemployment compensation claim, the employer will be required to prove that your conduct rose to the level of “willful misconduct” to deny unemployment benefits and if you were not provided with prior warnings by the employer, that fact may be relevant to your claim. If you believe you may have a claim based on your discharge, it is important to discuss these potential claims with an experienced Pennsylvania Unemployment law attorney.