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JACKSON v. J.C. PENNEY CO.

June 28, 1985

DENISE JACKSON
v.
J.C. PENNEY COMPANY, INC.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: O'NEILL

O'NEILL, J.

 MEMORANDUM

 Plaintiff, an at-will employee of defendant, J.C. Penney Company, Inc., was suspected of stealing merchandise from defendant's store and was discharged. She then filed this action charging wrongful discharge, slander, false imprisonment and, intentional infliction of emotional distress. Defendant has moved for summary judgment.

 Summary judgment is appropriate when there is no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Any doubts as to the existence of genuine issues of fact must be resolved against the moving party. Moreover, all inferences to be drawn from the underlying facts presented to the court are viewed in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion. Hollinger v. Wagner Mining Equipment Corp., 667 F.2d 402, 405 (3d Cir. 1981).

 The facts that give rise to the present action occurred on January 29, 1984. Plaintiff was entitled to purchase merchandise at a 15% employee discount. On her lunch break, plaintiff made purchases in the girl's department. When she returned to her work station, pursuant to store policy, her shopping bag was inspected by a co-worker and it was discovered that the bag contained 17 items; the attached sales receipt showed payment for only 16. Plaintiff was asked to go to the office of the personnel manager, Charles McGowan, where in the presence of two store security guards she was told that she was suspected of theft and was terminated. She was then led out of the store by one of the guards.

 Count I asserts a claim for wrongful discharge. The general rule in Pennsylvania is that an employee has no cause of action for wrongful discharge where there has been an at-will employment relationship. Reuther v. Fowler & Williams, Inc., 255 Pa. Super. 28, 31, 386 A.2d 119, 120 (1978). Therefore, absent a contractual or statutory right, either party to an employment relationship may terminate it at any time without liability.

 An exception to this general rule has been established after Geary v. U.S. Steel Corp., 456 Pa. 171, 319 A.2d 174 (1974) recognized that:

 
"there are areas of an employee's life in which his employer has no legitimate interest. An intrusion into one of these areas by virtue of the employer's power of discharge might plausibly give rise to a cause of action particularly where some recognized facet of public policy is threatened. Id. at 184, 319 A.2d at 180."

 This language has been interpreted to create a cause of action where there is a clear violation of an established public policy. See, e.g., Perks v. Firestone Tire & Rubber Co., 611 F.2d 1363 (3d Cir. 1979) (termination following employee's refusal to submit to polygraph examination); Rettinger v. American Can Co., 574 F. Supp. 306, 115 L.R.R.M. 3010 (M.D. Pa. 1984) (dismissal in retaliation for employee's filing of a workmen compensation claim); Hunter v. Port Authority of Allegheny County, 277 Pa. Super. 4, 419 A.2d 631 (1980) (public employer could not refuse employment on basis of a prior conviction as to which a pardon had been granted unless conviction was reasonably related to job performance); Reuther v. Fowler & Williams, Inc., supra, (employee terminated for serving on jury duty).

 
In Geary it was specifically held that:
 
"where the complaint itself discloses a plausible and legitimate reason for terminating an at-will employment relationship and no clear mandate of public policy is violated thereby, an employee at will has no right of action against his employer for wrongful discharge." 456 Pa. at 184, 319 A.2d at 180.

 Plaintiff has failed to allege any specific public policy that is violated by her dismissal and none is readily perceived. If plaintiff was treated unfairly by defendant, that, without more, would not give rise to an action for wrongful discharge. See, Rogers v. International Business Machines Corp., 500 F. Supp. 867 (W.D. Pa. 1980); Cisco v. United Parcel Services, Inc., 328 Pa. Super 300, 476 A.2d 1340 (1984).

 Furthermore, even if plaintiff could show a violation of some public policy, it appears that defendant had a "plausible and legitimate reason" for termination. The plaintiff was suspected of theft after a routine investigation by defendant. This reason is not less plausible or legitimate because plaintiff possibly was innocent of any wrongdoing. In Cisco v. United Parcel Services, Inc., supra, the plaintiff while working was involved in an incident that resulted in criminal charges of theft against him. While those charges were pending and before his acquittal he was forced to resign by his employer. The court held that the criminal charges provided the employer with a plausible and legitimate reason for terminating his employment, and that no public policy was violated thereby.

 In Count 2 plaintiff claims to have been slandered by her termination. A communication is defamatory when it tends to harm the reputation of another so as to lower him in the estimation of the community. Cosgrove Studio and Camera Shop, Inc. v. Pane, 408 Pa. 314, 182 A.2d 751 (1962). However, one is not liable for a publication of defamatory matter made on a conditionally privileged occasion, absent proof of abuse of that privilege. Baird v. ...


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