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LANDMESSER v. UNITED AIR LINES

June 26, 2000

SANDRA LANDMESSER, PLAINTIFF,
V.
UNITED AIR LINES, INC., DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Lowell A. Reed, Jr., Senior District Judge.

MEMORANDUM

Plaintiff Sandra Landmesser ("Landmesser") brought this action alleging that she was wrongfully discharged by defendant United Air Lines, Inc. ("United"), in violation of Pennsylvania's public policy exception to the doctrine of at-will employment. She also asserts claims for breach of contract, breach of a covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and for intentional infliction of emotional distress. Now before the Court is the motion of the defendant United Air Lines, Inc., for summary judgment (Document No. 12).*fn1 For the reasons set forth below, the motion of United will be granted.

I BACKGROUND

In 1990, Landmesser started working for United as a customer service representative and was generally considered a good employee. (Motion of United, Ex. 1, Deposition of Sandra Landmesser, at 33-37) ("Pl.'s Dep."); (Motion of United, Ex. 10, Customer Services Representative/Service Director Performance Review). On October 3, 1996, plaintiff came under suspicion for three separate ticketing improprieties, including an advance seat blocking she performed for herself.*fn2 United considers advance seat-blockings improper when performed by employees for their own travel convenience.*fn3 Alerted to something improper, Ms. Applegate reported her findings to Christine Rice, an acting supervisor, who brought the matter to the attention of Dick Sommer, another United supervisor. (Applegate Decl. at ¶ 8); (Motion of United, Ex. 12, Deposition of Richard Sommer, at 15-16) ("Sommer Dep."). Mr. Sommer contacted Corporate Security at United's headquarters in Chicago, and that department initiated an investigation of the incident. (Sommer Dep., at 16; Motion of United, Ex. 13, Declaration of Cindy Mulligan at ¶ 5 ("Mulligan Decl.")).

Cindy Mulligan of United's Corporate Security Department in Chicago examined several months of plaintiff's recent ticketing transactions and found that, in addition to blocking premium seats on Flight 95, plaintiff had engaged in other improper activities. Plaintiff had "even exchanged" a restricted, non-refundable 14-day advance purchase round trip ticket, bought by her cousin, for two one-way unrestricted tickets in the same direction and had waived the advance purchase requirements associated with 21-day advance purchase tickets for two other cousins. (Mulligan Decl. at ¶ 6b).

Plaintiff was present at an initial factfinding meeting where she was given an opportunity to explain the suspicious transactions. (Pl.'s Dep., at 149; Motion of United, Ex. 14, Fact Finding Meeting for Sandra Landmesser, at 1-2 ("Fact Finding")). After that meeting, plaintiff was informed that she was being suspended without pay until a more formal hearing could be conducted by United's City Manager, the highest ranked management official in Philadelphia. (Sommer Dep., at 55; Fact Finding, at 2). Plaintiff was then afforded three separate opportunities to defend herself against the allegations of wrongdoing, with the assistance of her attorney.*fn4 Following those hearings, plaintiff was terminated from her employment with United.

Having exhausted all remedies within United's internal grievance process, plaintiff brought this action in the Court of Common Pleas in Philadelphia County, and the case was removed to this Court.

II ANALYSIS

Defendant moves for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Under Rule 56, summary judgment may be granted when, "after considering the record evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, no genuine issue of material fact exists and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Turner v. Schering-Plough Corp., 901 F.2d 335, 340 (3d Cir. 1990). For a dispute to be "genuine," the evidence must be such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). If the moving party establishes the absence of a genuine issue of a material fact, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to "do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts." Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586, 106 S.Ct. 1348, 89 L.Ed.2d 538 (1986); see also Anderson 477 U.S. at 248-49, 106 S.Ct. 2505. The non-moving party may not rely merely upon bare assertions, conclusory allegations, or suspicions. See Fireman's Ins. Co. v. Du Fresne, 676 F.2d 965, 969 (3d Cir. 1982).

A. Wrongful Discharge

Pennsylvania has long adhered to the doctrine of at-will employment under which an employer "may discharge an employee with or without cause, at pleasure, unless restrained by some contract." Henry v. Pittsburgh & Lake Erie R.R. Co., 139 Pa. 289, 297, 21 A. 157 (1891); see also Clark v. Modern Group Ltd., 9 F.3d 321, 327 (3d Cir. 1993) (quoting Nix v. Temple Univ., 408 Pa. Super. 369, 375, 596 A.2d 1132, 1135 (1991) (holding that the core of the at-will doctrine is that an employee "can be terminated for good reason, bad reason, or no reason at all")); Geary v. United States Steel Corp., 456 Pa. 171, 175, 319 A.2d 174, 176 (1974) (stating that unless there is an explicit statutory or contractual provision to the contrary, "the law has taken for granted the power of either party to terminate an employment relationship for any or no reason.")

Despite the fact that United needs no reason to fire plaintiff, it has produced ample evidence of plaintiff's wrongdoings with respect to ticketing practices, and I conclude that plaintiff has not produced evidence sufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact that as to whether her transactions were violative of United's policies. In fact, plaintiff has not denied performing the contested transactions and even concedes that she understands why United would deem them improper. (Pl.'s Dep., at 109, 136-42, 146).*fn5 Rather, plaintiff claims that United's focus on the wrongful ticketing transactions is merely pretextual, and that the true reason for her discharge was her application for workers' compensation benefits in June of 1994,*fn6 a retaliatory motive that would violate Pennsylvania's public policy exception to the at-will employment doctrine. (Pl.'s Brief, at 5).

Since 1974, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has recognized a cause of action for wrongful discharge under circumstances that violate public policy. See Geary v. United States Steel Corp., 456 Pa. 171, 184, 319 A.2d 174, 180 (1974) ("[T]here 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.") In the years following Geary, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania identified a number of instances that would violate public policy and give rise to a cause of action for wrongful discharge. See Reuther v. Fowler & Williams, Inc., 255 Pa. Super. 28, 386 A.2d 119 (1978) (termination for absence due to jury duty violates public policy); Hunter v. Port Auth. of Allegheny County, 277 Pa. Super. 4, 419 A.2d 631 (1980) (denial of employment to pardoned individual because of an assault conviction violates public policy); Field v. Philadelphia Elec. Co., 388 Pa. Super. 400, 565 A.2d 1170 (1989) (discharge for making statutorily required report to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission violates public policy.)

Recently, in Shick v. Shirey Lumber, 552 Pa. 590, 592, 716 A.2d 1231, 1232 (1998), the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania explicitly recognized another instance in which a discharge would violate public policy: "We hold that an at-will employee who alleges retaliatory discharge for the filing of a workers' compensation claim has stated a cause of action for which relief may be granted under the law of this Commonwealth." Shick v. Shirey, 552 Pa. at 592, 716 A.2d 1231. While Shick unambiguously recognizes a cause of action when an employee is terminated in retaliation for filing a workers' compensation claim, the Supreme Court did not define the elements necessary to establish a prima facie case of "retaliation." Other judges in this district have struggled with this lack of guidance. See Alderfer v. Nibco Inc., 1999 U.S.Dist. LEXIS 16083, at *3, 1999 WL 956375 (E.D.Pa. Oct. 19, 1999) (finding that there is a "dearth of caselaw" interpreting Shick, and that the Pennsylvania courts have not set forth a "model of proof to use in evaluating claims"); see also Sharkey v. Federal ...


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