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Owens v. Lehigh Valley Hosp.

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

November 7, 2014

Brenda A. Owens, Appellant
v.
Lehigh Valley Hospital

Submitted October 6, 2014

Appealed from No. 2013-C-2397. Common Pleas Court of the County of Lehigh. McGinley, President Judge.

Donald P. Russo, Bethlehem, for appellant.

Andrea M. Kirshenbaum, Philadelphia, for appellee.

BEFORE: HONORABLE BONNIE BRIGANCE LEADBETTER, Judge, HONORABLE P. KEVIN BROBSON, Judge, HONORABLE JAMES GARDNER COLINS, Senior Judge.

OPINION

Page 860

 COLINS, SENIOR JUDGE

The issue before this Court is whether an employee alleging a claim for wrongful discharge in violation of the clear mandate of public policy embodied in the Workers' Compensation Act[1] must allege that a claim petition was filed with the Workers' Compensation Bureau (Bureau) or whether it is sufficient for the employee to allege that a work-related injury was reported to the employer and the employer paid compensation in lieu of workers' compensation benefits.

On December 2, 2013, Brenda A. Owens (Appellant) filed a second amended complaint (complaint) alleging one count of wrongful discharge in violation of public policy. Pennsylvania does not recognize a claim for wrongful discharge;

Page 861

where not restrained by contract, employment in the Commonwealth is at-will and an employee may be discharged with or without cause. See, e.g., Weaver v. Harpster, 601 Pa. 488, 975 A.2d 555 (Pa. 2009); Henry v. Pittsburgh & L.E.R. Co. et al., 139 Pa. 289, 21 A. 157, 27 Week. Notes Cas. 322, 48 Legal Int. 166, 38 Pitts. Leg. J. 287 (Pa. 1891). A public-policy exception to this doctrine was recognized by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Shick v. Shirey, 552 Pa. 590, 716 A.2d 1231 (Pa. 1998), where the Court held that an at-will employee who alleges a claim of retaliatory discharge for filing a workers' compensation claim has stated a common law cause of action for which relief may be granted. Appellant's complaint alleges that she was discharged by Lehigh Valley Hospital (Employer) in retaliation for filing workers' compensation claims with Employer. Employer filed preliminary objections in the nature of a demurrer on December 27, 2013, alleging that Appellant had failed to state a claim for relief because her second amended complaint clearly stated that she had never filed a claim petition with the Bureau. On February 27, 2014, Lehigh County Court of Common Pleas (Trial Court) entered an order sustaining Employer's demurrer and dismissing Appellant's second amended complaint.

In an attached opinion, the Trial Court relied upon Landmesser v. United Air Lines, Inc., 102 F.Supp.2d 273 (E.D. Pa. 2000), wherein the federal district court concluded that once the Pennsylvania Supreme Court had an opportunity to define the elements necessary to establish a prima facie case for wrongful discharge, it would adopt the test applied in Title VII[2] retaliation claims, specifically that a plaintiff must allege that: (1) the employee engaged in a protected employee activity; (2) the employer took an adverse employment action after or contemporaneous with the employee's protected activity; and (3) a causal link exists between the employee's protected activity and the employer's adverse action. (Trial Court Op. at 5 ( citing Landmesser, 102 F.Supp.2d at 277-278).) Using these elements to determine whether or not Appellant stated a prima facie case, the Trial Court concluded that she had not. The Trial Court reasoned that here, unlike the appellant in Shick, Appellant did not allege that she filed a claim petition with the Bureau and instead alleges that her occupational injuries were not challenged by Employer and that her medical bills were paid. (Trial Court Op. at 5.) As a result of Appellant's failure to allege that she filed a claim petition with the Bureau, the Trial Court reasoned that Appellant could not state a claim for wrongful discharge because she had not alleged that she engaged in a protected activity. ( Id. at 6.) Appellant appealed the Trial Court's order to this Court for review.[3]

Before this Court, Appellant argues that the Trial Court erred in interpreting Shick to require that an employee must file a claim petition with the Bureau

Page 862

in order to allege a claim for wrongful discharge in retaliation for seeking workers' compensation benefits.[4] Appellant contends that such a narrow reading would leave a large swath of workers unprotected by the public policy exception enunciated in Shick as, like here, most workers' compensation claims are processed by an employer without objection and do not require a petition to be filed with the Bureau.

Employer argues that Appellant has pled only vague allegations that she reported her injuries to Employer and that Employer paid her medical bills. Employer argues that, as the Trial Court concluded, these allegations are insufficient to establish that Appellant engaged in a protected activity. Employer contends that in order to state a claim under our Supreme Court's narrow holding in Shick, a plaintiff must allege that a claim petition seeking compensation for a work-related injury was filed with the Bureau. In the alternative, Employer argues that under the ...


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