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ANSY L. SCOTT v. EXTRACORPOREAL (07/11/88)

filed: July 11, 1988.

ANSY L. SCOTT, APPELLANT,
v.
EXTRACORPOREAL, INC.



Appeal from the Order Entered on July 6, 1987, in the Court of Common Pleas of Montgomery County, Civil Division, at No. 84-02642.

COUNSEL

Richard W. Rogers, Norristown, for appellant.

James E. Farrell, Jr., New Hope, for appellee.

Tamilia, Hoffman and Hester, JJ.

Author: Hester

[ 376 Pa. Super. Page 93]

Ansy L. Scott appeals from the order of summary judgment entered in the Court of Common Pleas of Montgomery County on July 6, 1987. This action arose out of appellant's discharge from her employment with appellee-Extracorporeal, Inc. In this appeal, appellant alleges that the entry of summary judgment was improper since she was under a contract precluding her dismissal without just cause and due to the fact that the discharge contravened public policy. We affirm.

Appellant was hired by Extracorporeal in 1980 to work on its assembly line at its manufacturing facility in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Extracorporeal's business is the development, manufacture, and distribution of medical devices. Upon hiring appellant, a company manager told her the job would be "permanent" and that there would be "a lot of overtime." Appellant executed a document acknowledging that she would be a permanent employee following the successful completion of a ninety-day probationary period. A handbook was distributed setting forth numerous details about company policies.

On August 25, 1983, a disturbance involving appellant occurred on the floor of the plant. One of appellant's co-worker's on the assembly line, Frances Adaey, "talked very loud . . . [about how] she was going to kick somebody's ass." Notes of Testimony, (N.T.), 10/17/86, at 18. Appellant attempted to ignore her. Ms. Adaey proceeded to insult appellant, stating that she knew a "state patient" when she saw one. Appellant's supervisor was informed of the disturbance, and he called all of the workers in the department into his office. The supervisor inquired about the disturbance and Ms. Adaey accused appellant of telling lies about her. The supervisor told those assembled he wanted the "nonsense" to stop. Ms. Adaey told him that she did not care what he said, that she and her husband were going to "kick some asses." Id. at 23. She told appellant that the remarks were directed at her. "I just ignored her and laughed," testified appellant, "and I told

[ 376 Pa. Super. Page 94]

    her I wasn't afraid of her . . . . I said you hit me, I said I will hit you back." Id. The supervisor repeated his admonition that the disturbance must stop and dismissed the meeting. As appellant walked out the door, Ms. Adaey struck her on the head from behind, knocking her unconscious. When she awoke, she discovered Ms. Adaey's hand on her head. Ms. Adaey pulled hair from appellant's head. It required eight women to pull Ms. Adey from appellant. Id. 24-27. Both appellant and Ms. Adaey were sent home. Appellant was subsequently fired for fighting, and she filed suit against Extracorporeal. Summary judgment was entered in favor of the latter.

Our standard of review for orders of summary judgment is as follows:

Summary judgment may be granted if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, show that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law . . . . It is basic that summary judgment may be entered only in a case that is clear and free from doubt.

Rossi v. Pennsylvania State University, 340 Pa. Super. 39, 44-45, 489 A.2d 828, 831 (1988).

The employment at-will presumption holds that absent a contract to the contrary, an employee may be discharged for any or no reason. Darlington v. General Electric, 350 Pa. Super. 183, 504 A.2d 306 (1986).

Taking a nationwide view of the law in this area, it is apparent that what once was the corpus juris of employment relations has lately become an amorphous mass of confusion replete with holdings that defy reconciliation from one jurisdiction to the next. The at-will presumption, the citadel that once governed the field with such predictability, has been eroded of late by piecemeal attacks on both the contract and tort fronts and the entire field seems precariously perched on the brink of change.

Martin v. Capital Cities Media, Inc., 354 Pa. Super. 199, 208, 511 A.2d 830, 834 (1986).

[ 376 Pa. Super. Page 95]

"Pennsylvania has thus far escaped the widescale turbulence so common to the field and still clings to the at-will presumption." Id. The sine qua non of the presumption is that except in rare instances, discharges will not be reviewed in a judicial forum. The presumption may be overcome by express contract, implied in-fact contract (that is, the surrounding circumstances of the hiring may indicate that the parties did not intend it to be at-will), and additional consideration passing from the employee to the employer (that is, if the employee bestows a legally sufficient benefit or incurs a sufficient detriment for the benefit of the employer beyond the services for which he was hired, a court may infer that the parties intended to overcome the at-will presumption). An employer has no right to discharge even an at-will employee if the firing would contravene a clear public policy or if it is effected with the specific intent to harm the employee. A dismissal which is improper for either reason may be remedied by a tort action in wrongful discharge. Veno v. Meredith, 357 Pa. Super. 85, 515 A.2d 571 (1986). Several recent decisions have noted that any further erosion of the at-will presumption in Pennsylvania should be effected by the legislature, not the courts. Darlington v. General Electric, supra; Martin v. Capital Cities Media, Inc., supra; and Veno v. Meredith, supra.

Appellant argues that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment as there was evidence raising a material question of fact that she had entered into a life-time or permanent employment relationship. In support of this, she points to her deposition where she testified that upon being hired, her manager told her that she "could have a permanent job and there was a lot of overtime." N.T., 10/17/86, at 15. She also points to the fact that an employee handbook was delivered to her advising that she would achieve permanent employment status after the successful completion of a ninety day probationary period*fn1 and

[ 376 Pa. Super. Page 96]

    also listing various offenses which could be cause for termination. She further cites an agreement she executed when she was hired which states, among other things, that the employer would have all rights to any inventions or improvements she might make or conceive and that she would not divulge the employer's confidential information.

We find no merit to this contention. We shall examine each of the factors asserted by appellant. The promise of "permanent" employment alone is too broad to be enforced. Pennsylvania appellate decisions have invariably evinced a marked reluctance to enforce employment contracts "for life" or of similar breadth. Recent cases holding that such promises do not overcome the at-will presumption include: Ross v. Montour Railroad Co., 357 Pa. Super. 376, 516 A.2d 29 (1986) (expectation of "life long" employment alone not sufficient to overcome the at-will rule); Murphy v. Publicker Industries, Inc., 357 Pa. Super. 409, 516 A.2d 47 (1986) (promise of life-time employment is not in itself definite enough to overcome the at-will presumption); Veno v. Meredith, 357 Pa. Super. 85, 515 A.2d 571 (1986) (employer's statements to employee, including "I want to retire together," held too broad and vague to overcome the at-will presumption); Darlington v. General Electric, 350 Pa. Super. 183, 504 A.2d 306 (1986) (employer's statement that employee was hired to work on a "long range project" held too vague and unspecified to overcome the at-will presumption); and Betts v. Stroehmann Bros., 355 Pa. Super. 195, 512 A.2d 1280 (1986) (employee's ...


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