The opinion of the court was delivered by: BY THE COURT; JAY C. WALDMAN
Plaintiff is a former employee of defendant attorney and his law firm. She is suing for wrongful discharge after having "blown the whistle" on the defendants' allegedly improper billing practices. Jurisdiction is based on diversity of citizenship.
Defendants have moved to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6).
The purpose of a Rule 12(b)(6) motion is to test the legal sufficiency of a complaint. See Sturm v. Clark, 835 F.2d 1009, 1111 (3d Cir. 1987). In deciding a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, the court must "accept as true all the allegations in the complaint and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn therefrom, and view them in the light most favorable to the non-moving party." See Rocks v. Philadelphia, 868 F.2d 644, 645 (3d Cir. 1989). Dismissal is not appropriate unless it clearly appears that plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief. See Hishon v. King & Spalding, 467 U.S. 69, 73, 81 L. Ed. 2d 59, 104 S. Ct. 2229 (1984); Robb v. Philadelphia, 733 F.2d 286, 290 (3d Cir. 1984). A complaint may be dismissed when the facts pled and the reasonable inferences drawn therefrom are legally insufficient to support the relief sought. See Pennsylvania ex. rel. Zimmerman v. Pepsico, Inc., 836 F.2d 173, 179 (3d Cir. 1988).
The pertinent factual allegations in the light most favorable to plaintiff are as follow. From November 4, 1990 to April 4, 1991, plaintiff was employed by defendants at will as a paralegal and secretary. The time she spent on client matters was billed to clients as "attorney's time" without any notice to such clients that the work was done by a non-lawyer. Her supervisors directed her at times to bill her work directly as attorney's time despite her protests that the practice was improper. She then informed various authorities and affected clients of this practice. Plaintiff does not allege that she had any responsibility for overseeing the firm's billing practices.
Defendants responded by imposing new work rules with respect to hours of employment which applied only to and discriminated against plaintiff. She was subsequently terminated.
In count I, plaintiff asserts that she was terminated in violation of public policy for reporting the wrongful actions of defendants. In count II, she asserts that she was terminated in violation of public policy for refusing to perform wrongful actions. In count III, she asserts that defendants' actions were intentional and calculated to cause her harm and thus constitute a "prima facie tort."
It is well established under Pennsylvania law that "absent a statutory or contractual provision to the contrary
. . . either party [may] terminate an employment relationship for any or no reason." Geary v. United States Steel Corp., 456 Pa. 171, 175-176, 319 A.2d 174 (1974). An employer may determine, without any fair hearing to an at-will employee, that the employer simply wishes to be rid of him. Darlington v. General Electric, 350 Pa. Super. 183, 210, 504 A.2d 306 (1986). An employer's right to terminate an at-will employee has been characterized as "virtually absolute." O'Neill v. ARA Services, Inc., 457 F. Supp. 182, 186 (E.D. Pa. 1978).
Pennsylvania law does recognize, however, a non-statutory cause of action for wrongful discharge from employment-at-will, but only in the quite narrow and limited circumstance where the discharge violates a significant and recognized public policy. Borse v. Piece Goods Shop, 963 F.2d 611, 617 (3d Cir. 1992); Geary, supra; Darlington, supra. Such a public policy must be "clearly mandated" and of a type that "strikes at the heart of a citizen's social right, duties and responsibilities." Novosel v. Nationwide Insurance Co., 721 F.2d 894, 899 (3d Cir. 1983). Geary signals a "narrow rather than expansive interpretation of the public policy exception." Bruffett v. Warner Communications, Inc., 692 F.2d 910, 918 (3d Cir. ...