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HANSON v. GICHNER SYS. GROUP

August 18, 1993

ANDREW S. HANSON, Plaintiff
v.
GICHNER SYSTEMS GROUP, INC., Defendant



The opinion of the court was delivered by: WILLIAM W. CALDWELL

 We exercise jurisdiction over this common law wrongful discharge case under 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a) and we are considering Defendant's motion for summary judgment.

 I. Facts and Procedural History

 Defendant, Gichner Systems Group, Inc. ("Gichner"), manufactures military equipment. In 1985, Plaintiff Andrew Hanson began working for Gichner as a design engineer. A year later, he was promoted to sales engineer, a position which required him to respond to requests for proposals, prepare bids and estimates, and explain contracts to other Gichner personnel.

 Plaintiff claims that the president of the company, Charles Atwood, asked him to lie to federal investigators from the General Accounting Office ("GAO") concerning the conduct of two Gichner employees in their handling of a government contract. He claims he refused and was fired a month later.

 Defendant argues that the Plaintiff's own deposition testimony indicates that he was never asked to give false information. Further, Defendant contends that there were several separate, legitimate reasons for Plaintiff's discharge.

 On July 23, 1992, Plaintiff filed in the Court of Common Pleas for York County, Pennsylvania, a lawsuit alleging wrongful discharge and intentional infliction of emotional distress. On August 26, 1992, Gichner removed the case to this court. On October 8, 1992, we ordered the intentional infliction of emotional distress claim stricken. Defendant filed the current motion for summary judgment on July 7, 1993.

 II. Law and Discussion

 A. Standard for Summary Judgment

 Summary judgment is appropriate when there remain no genuine issues as to any material facts and judgment may be entered as a matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56; Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 106 S. Ct. 2548, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265 (1986). When a movant submits that there is no genuine issue as to a material fact, its opponent must do more than "simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts." Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., Ltd., et al v. Zenith Radio Corp., et al, 475 U.S. 574, 586; 106 S. Ct. 1348, 1356; 89 L. Ed. 2d 538 (1986).

 B. Wrongful Discharge

 As Plaintiff recognizes, he comes to this lawsuit with a heavy burden. Pennsylvania law strongly favors at-will employment and allows only narrow exceptions to that presumption. Burkholder v. Hutchison, 403 Pa. Super. 498, 589 A.2d 721, 723 (Pa. Super. 1991). One such deviation from the at-will doctrine is the public policy exception, first enunciated by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Geary v. United States Steel Corp., 456 Pa. 171, 319 A.2d 174 (1974). To maintain a case under this exception,

 Turner v. Letterkenny Federal Credit Union, 351 Pa. Super. 51, 505 A.2d 259, 261 (Pa. Super. 1985), quoting Novosel v. Nationwide Insurance Company, 721 F.2d 894, 899 (3d Cir. 1983). The Pennsylvania courts have clearly pronounced the public policy exception to be an exceptionally narrow one. Burkholder, 589 A.2d at 724.

 The Pennsylvania Superior Court has, however, recognized three exceptions: (1) an employee may not be fired for serving jury duty, Reuther v. Fowler & Williams, Inc., 255 Pa. Super. 28, 386 A.2d 119 (Pa. Super. 1978), (2) an employer may not deny employment to a person because of a prior conviction for which that person has been pardoned, Hunter v. Port Authority of Allegheny County, 277 Pa. Super. 4, 419 A.2d 631 (Pa. Super. 1980), and (3) an employee may not be fired for reporting violations of federal regulations to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Field v. Philadelphia Electric Company, 388 Pa. Super. 400, 565 A.2d 1170, 1180 (Pa. Super. 1989).

 Federal courts interpreting Pennsylvania law have been slightly more expansive, allowing the exception to apply where an employer discharged an employee for refusing to take a polygraph test, Perks v. Firestone Tire & Rubber Co., 611 F.2d 1363 (3d Cir. 1979), where an employee lost her job for filing a workers' compensation claim, Rettinger v. American Can Co., 574 F. Supp. 306, 311 (M.D. Pa. 1983) (Rambo, J.), where an employee was fired for reporting the illegal actions of her employer, Paralegal v. Lawyer, 783 F. Supp. 230 (E.D. Pa. 1992), and where an employee is discharged for refusing to support the employer's lobbying efforts. Novosel, 721 F.2d at 900.

 In the instant case, Defendant argues that Plaintiff's allegations, even when taken as true, do not implicate Pennsylvania public policy. Defendant directs our attention to a number of cases that stand for the proposition that public policy is not violated when an employee is fired for refusing to lie during a company's internal investigation. It relies on Rost v. Nat'l Railroad Passenger Corporation, No. 88-6598, 1992 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 13130 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 31, 1992). In Rost, the plaintiffs claimed that they were discharged for refusing to lie during an internal Amtrak investigation. The court held that:

 
Being requested by an employer to lie to further an internal company investigation is indeed disturbing, but does not amount to a public policy violation that will support a wrongful discharge claim.

 Id. at *21. In offering Rost, Defendant ignores a clear distinction. In the case at bar, Plaintiff alleges that he was terminated for refusing to give false statements to federal investigators. While there is no law requiring veracity in internal investigations of private companies, there is such a statute in the context of a federal investigation. See 18 U.S.C. § 1001 (1993). *fn1" In response to Plaintiff's invocation of the federal statute, Defendant suggests that:

 
first, as a legal matter, any purported violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1001 simply would not violate the public policy of Pennsylvania so as to allow Hanson to state a claim for wrongful discharge

 Defendant's Reply Brief at 10. The implication is that Pennsylvania regards only its own legislation as stating public policy within the Commonwealth. This argument is without merit. First, federalism is not a doctrine requiring the federal government to respect state autonomy yet imposing no duty upon the states. Citizens of Pennsylvania are citizens of the United States and, certainly, adherence to federal law is in their best interests. Second; there is authority from the Pennsylvania Superior Court that unambiguously belies Defendant's contention.

 
Under the [Energy Reorganization Act), Field was required statutorily to report these violations. Thus appellants were fired because Field performed a duty he was required to perform under federal law.

 Field, 565 A.2d at 1180, 1182 (finding a wrongful discharge claim where employees claimed they were fired because one of them reported violations of federal regulations) (emphasis added). Clearly, Pennsylvania courts allow that federal law may state public policy cognizable in Pennsylvania common law.

 Defendant also argues that, because the public policy exception is a narrow one, we should not recognize new causes of action without clear direction from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. We agree that the exception is narrow and that state law is best interpreted and expanded by state courts. However, a federal court sitting in diversity, without guidance from the state's highest court, is to predict what that court would do. Commissioner v. Estate of Bosch, 387 U.S. 456, 465; 87 S. Ct. 1776, 1782; 18 L. Ed. 2d 886 (1967); Woodson v. AMF Leisureland Centers, Inc., 842 F.2d 699, 702 (3d Cir. 1988). We believe Pennsylvania precedent is consistent and that we can discern the doctrinal trend in this area, and that our recognition of an exception in the instant case would not offend the authority of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to interpret state law. *fn2"

 This case resembles those cases in which the Pennsylvania courts have allowed causes of action. For example, in Reuther, 255 Pa. Super. 28, 386 A.2d 119, the Superior Court concluded that serving on juries is of the "highest importance to our legal process." 386 A.2d at 120. In the same sense, the ability of federal investigators to glean truthful statements from citizens "strikes at the heart of a citizen's social rights, duties and responsibilities." Turner, 505 A.2d at 261. We conclude that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court would consider the allegations of the instant complaint to fall with the narrow exception recognized in Geary. 456 Pa. 171, 319 A.2d ...


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