The Difficult Case of Wrongful Discharge

Randler v. Kountry Kraft Inc., No. 1:11-CV-474, (M.D.Pa. October 24, 2011) is an employment case related to termination.Pennsylvania is known as an "at-will" employment state. This means that generally, a person may be terminated for any reason, as long as it is not illegal. However, as employment law has evolved so has the idea of wrongful termination. In an "at-will" state like Pennsylvania, a public policy exception must be found for a termination to be found wrongful if it does not otherwise invoke race, gender, or religious discrimination statutes. This case provides an example of a court allowing an action to go to trial on this idea, although does not approve or disapprove of the public policy.

Between 2001 and 2010, Randler, the plaintiff was employed by the defendant Kountry a cabinet maker. In 2005, Randler became the subject of unwanted sexual harassment by other employees at her plant location. In her lawsuit she claimed that co-workers routinely played pranks on her involving pubic hair, crotch-less shorts, lewd drawings, and other such incidents. As a result of these incidents, Randler approached her supervisors.

After approaching her supervisors, there was no change in the behavior of her coworkers. Instead, the lawsuit alleged that following her complaint, supervisors reduced the number of hours she worked, and required her to make up for deficient work by other employees. Eventually, Randler was discharged in 2009. While still employed, Randler alleged that Kountry Kraft did not enforce written policies, and that her termination was in retaliation for complaining about the treatment suffered at the hands of other employees. For our purposes, the main cause of action which will be analyzed is the wrongful discharge claim.

Because Pennsylvania is an at-will state, employers may fire for just about any reason. One repercussion of this policy is that wrongful termination lawsuits are often disposed of via summary judgment. In this case, Kountry Kraft moved for dismissal because of failure to properly plead. The court analyzed this claim. In doing so they noted that an employee may bring a wrongful termination action involving an at-will employment relationship only if he or she can show that the termination violated a clear mandate of public policy. In this case, Randler alleged that Pennsylvania had a public policy against nepotism as well as the company's own anti-nepotism policy.

The problem with alleging public policy violations as the court explained is that it is narrow in scope. It should be applied to significant and recognized public policies. Sources of these public policies include legislation, administrative rules, regulations, and judicial precedent. There is a protectable interest in an employer's right to choose to run its business as they see fit, thus the narrow scope of public policy. In Pennsylvania, nepotism has not been held to be a public policy violation, and the court noted has been used as a defense to the various employment discrimination claims available to plaintiffs.

To counter the court's reasons, Randler's attorneys cited several Pennsylvania agencies which have anti-nepotism policies within their own regulatory codes. The court was unmoved because Pennsylvania has in the past expanded these public policies only in situations when a given policy is "so obviously for or against public health, safety, morals, or welfare that there is a virtual unanimity of opinion in regard to it." The court did not believe Pennsylvania public policy was implicated.

Interestingly, the court did look at the employee handbook of Kountry Kraft which maintained an anti-nepotism policy. This charge was allowed to move forward because Pennsylvania allows an employee to show at-will employment involves a contract if a reasonable person in the employee's position would interpret the handbook as replacing at-will status with a contractual term. Because of this term in the employment handbook, Randler's attorneys were given the chance to show violation of a contractual term at the next stage of litigation.

The main idea of this case is to show how limited the wrongful discharge action is. There is not a list of acceptable public policy exceptions, however, the guide of public health, safety, moral or welfare certainly provides an outline. Additionally, within those categories, the opinion of lay people must be nearly unanimous in proclamation against allowing termination for that reason. At the early stage of litigation in this case, Randler was only saved because her attorney referenced a term in the employment handbook. It is questionable however what effect a ruling such as this should have on employers? Does it incentivize not maintaining consistent policies, or simply providing a handbook which states that the employee understands their status as at-will, and that the handbook does not denote a contract between employer and employee? It is certainly one issue to watch as this area of law continues to progress.

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