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BYRON L. RINEHIMER v. LUZERNE COUNTY COMMUNITY COLLEGE BOARD TRUSTEES LUZERNE COUNTY COMMUNITY COLLEGE JOSEPH COLLIS HELEN G. CROSSIN (02/18/88)

filed: February 18, 1988.

BYRON L. RINEHIMER, JR., APPELLANT,
v.
LUZERNE COUNTY COMMUNITY COLLEGE; BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF LUZERNE COUNTY COMMUNITY COLLEGE; JOSEPH COLLIS; HELEN G. CROSSIN, EXECUTRIX OF THE ESTATE OF FRANCIS CROSSIN, DECEASED; ANTHONY RECUPERO; EDWARD BROMINSKI; MICHAEL TURCO; WILLIAM SCHUMACHER; JEAN GRECO AND JOHN ROMAN



APPEAL FROM THE ORDER ENTERED FEBRUARY 20, 1987 IN THE COURT OF COMMON PLEAS OF LUZERNE COUNTY, CIVIL NO. 825-C OF 1982.

COUNSEL

Daniel L. Thistle, Philadelphia, for appellant.

Stephen W. Saunders and Michael J. Donahue, Scranton, for appellee.

Cirillo, President Judge, and Tamilia and Kelly, JJ. Kelly, J., notes dissent.

Author: Cirillo

[ 372 Pa. Super. Page 483]

Plaintiff/appellant Byron L. Rinehimer, Jr. was president of Luzerne County Community College from 1974 until he was terminated on September 23, 1980. His appeal arises from an order entered by the Court of Common Pleas of Luzerne County denying his request that the compulsory non-suit entered against him be removed. Appellant had brought suit against the Luzerne County Community College Board of Trustees alleging that he was wrongfully discharged. Because we find that appellant failed to present sufficient evidence in his case-in-chief to enable the jury to find for him, we affirm the order of the trial court.

Rinehimer originally was given a contract for three years with the College. In 1977, 1978, and 1979 the Board extended that contract orally for one-year periods. In 1980, Rinehimer requested several times that the contract be renewed; this the College deferred doing, claiming that their reasons for refusing to consider the contract were pressing financial problems as well as appellant's election as President of the Pennsylvania Commission of Community Colleges, a position which required that he spend time away from the College.

At the same time, the College was undergoing serious problems. Robert Galardi, the Dean of the Business School, and Sam Lesante, the Chairman of the Board of Trustees, were accused of embezzling College funds. Rinehimer brought the matter before the Board; Lesante resigned, Galardi did not. Rinehimer ordered Galardi's termination, and requested a Department of Education audit. Displeased with the audit, Rinehimer then called in the Auditor General's Office and requested that they do an audit also. That audit showed that funds had indeed been misappropriated.

Rinehimer's tactics engendered a great deal of internal unrest, as well as public comment unfavorable to the College. According to the Board, this as well as lack of leadership led to his termination on September 23, 1980. His oral contract had ended in April of that year, so that he

[ 372 Pa. Super. Page 484]

    was, in effect, working on a day-to-day basis when he was terminated.

Rinehimer filed suit against the Board, alleging that he had been fired in retaliation for exposing Galardi and Lesante. He claimed that three other College officials instrumental in the investigation were also let go after he was fired, and that the Board had rehired Galardi, in spite of evidence against him. At trial, the court refused to allow testimony from the investigating auditor that Rinehimer claimed would show that several employees had refused to cooperate with the audit for fear of being fired, evidence of lost wages, and evidence of criminal prosecutions against LeSante, Galardi, and others. At the close of Rinehimer's case, the trial judge granted a non-suit. Rinehimer filed posttrial motions requesting that the compulsory non-suit be removed; this request was denied. Rinehimer then appealed to this court.

Rinehimer argues on appeal that the non-suit was improper because he did establish a claim for wrongful discharge; his discharge violated public policy and so took him out of the presumption of at-will employment accepted in this Commonwealth. He also claims that the non-suit was improper because he detrimentally relied upon a promise to renew the contract. Rinehimer further argues that the trial court erred in making several evidentiary rulings, specifically that it erred in refusing to allow testimony of the investigating auditor, in refusing to allow testimony concerning criminal investigations arising from the results of the audit, and in refusing to allow evidence of lost wages. Lastly, Rinehimer asks that venue be transferred to Philadelphia because of the sensitive political nature of the case.

In examining the grant or denial of a request to remove a compulsory non-suit, the appellate court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff in the underlying case, giving him the benefit of all reasonable inferences of fact in his favor arising from that evidence. Coatesville Contractors & Engineers, Inc. v. Borough of Ridley Park, 509 Pa. 553, 559, 506 A.2d 862, 865 (1986). A

[ 372 Pa. Super. Page 485]

    compulsory non-suit will be affirmed on appeal "only where it is inconceivable, on any reasonable hypothesis, that a mind desiring solely to reach a just and proper conclusion in accordance with the relevant governing principles of law, after viewing that evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, could determine the controlling issue in plaintiff's favor." Stevens v. Commonwealth, Dept. of Transp., 89 Pa. Commw. 309, 312-313, 492 A.2d 490, 492 (1985). After considering all of Rinehimer's evidence, along with the inferences most favorable to him drawn from that evidence, we are unable to find that the trial court erred in granting the non-suit. Further, we do not see that it erred in its evidentiary rulings. It is also clear to us that even if Rinehimer had been permitted to place the testimony in question before the jury, a non-suit would have been proper. We do not find it necessary upon our disposition of this case to reach the question of venue.

The courts of this Commonwealth have long recognized that an employer has the right to discharge an employee who has no definite contract of employment at any time and for any reason. Henry v. Pittsburgh & L.E.R.R., 139 Pa. 289, 21 A. 157 (1891). This doctrine, the "at-will" employment doctrine, was reaffirmed by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in Geary v. United States Steel Corp., 456 Pa. 171, 319 A.2d 174 (1974). In that case, Geary, an at-will employee involved in the sale of tubular products to the gas and steel industry, was discharged following his attempts to have United States Steel remove from the market a product that he did not feel was adequately tested. He had gone over the heads of several supervisors to a vice-president in charge of sales of the product in his attempts to be heard. Although the product was eventually removed, Geary was discharged.

Geary filed suit; the company's preliminary objections in the nature of a demurrer were sustained. On appeal, Geary argued first, that he had been discharged maliciously, and second that his discharge contravened public policy. The court affirmed the decision of the trial court, finding that

[ 372 Pa. Super. Page 486]

Geary had failed to plead facts that would support a cause of action. It found that he had, in effect, made a "nuisance" of himself, and that the natural inference to be drawn from the chain of events was that the company discharged him to preserve administrative order. According to the court, this was a legitimate reason for the discharge. "This hardly amounts to an 'ulterior motive,' much less to 'disinterested malevolence' . . . ." Id., 456 Pa. at 180, 319 A.2d at 178.

In addressing the public policy question, the court expressed great concern over the company's interest in protecting its managerial prerogative: "The praiseworthiness of Geary's motives does not detract from the company's legitimate interest in preserving its normal operational procedures from disruption." Id., 456 Pa. at 183, 319 A.2d at 180. It is from this concern that the court's holding arises:

It may be granted 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. The notion that substantive due process elevates an employer's privilege of hiring and discharging his employees to an absolute constitutional right has long since been discredited . . . . We hold [however] 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.

Id., 456 Pa. at 184-185, 319 A.2d at 180.

Geary, therefore, re-emphasized this Commonwealth's commitment to the at-will employment doctrine. This court has recently reiterated that commitment in Greene v. Oliver Realty Co., 363 Pa. Super. 534, 526 A.2d 1192 (1987). We have also recognized, as did the supreme court, that exceptions to the at-will ...


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