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Harrison v. Health Network Laboratories Limited Partnership

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

January 9, 2017



          SCHMEHL, J.

         This action was originally filed by the plaintiff in the Court of Common Pleas of Lehigh County, then removed by defendants to this Court on the basis of federal question jurisdiction. Presently before the Court is the plaintiff's motion to remand. For the reasons that follow, the motion is denied.

         In her one-count Complaint, plaintiff alleges that the defendants retaliated against her by terminating her employment in violation of the Pennsylvania Whistleblower Law, 43 P.S. 1423(a).

         Plaintiff alleges that she worked for defendant Health Network Laboratories Limited Partnership (HNLLP) from October 1, 1998 until her termination on November 19, 2015. (Compl. at ¶ 9.) Defendant Lehigh Valley Health Network, Inc. (“LVHN”) is allegedly the general partner of HNLPP. Plaintiff alleges that since 2012, she worked for HNLLP as a “Manager, Quality.” (Id. at ¶ 10.) In that role, plaintiff alleges that her job duties included, inter alia, “interfacing with co-workers to insure they were performing in a satisfactory and safe work environment.” (Id. at ¶¶ 10-11.)

         In March of 2015, plaintiff allegedly received a complaint from co-worker Elizabeth Corkery (“Corkery”), an employee in HNLLP's IT Department. (Id. at ¶ 12.) The complaint concerned “abusive, discriminatory and harassing conduct” by Corkery's supervisor, Arun Bhaskar (“Bhaskar”), the director of the IT Department. (Id. at ¶¶ 12-13.) Plaintiff alleges that Bhaskar is of “Indian heritage.” (Id. at ¶ 16.) Plaintiff alleges that Bhaskar made “abusive, discriminatory, threatening” comments to Corkery, subjected her to an intensely hostile working environment, and discriminated against employees who were not of Indian heritage. (Id. at ¶¶ 14, 16.) She alleges that Bhaskar's conduct was known to and sanctioned by his supervisor, Harvey Guindi (“Guindi”). (Id. at ¶ 15.)

         Plaintiff alleges that she reported her concerns to HNLLP's Chief Operating Officer, Elizabeth Rokus (“Rokus”), although plaintiff did not identify Bhaskar, Guindi or Corkery by name to Rokus. (Id. at ¶ 18.) Plaintiff alleges that she asked Rokus to appoint an Ombudsman to address Corkery's complaints, but Rokus refused. (Id. at 19-20.) After the abusive and discriminatory conduct of Bhaskar continued, Corkery finally resigned on October 1, 2015. (Id. at ¶ 21.) On that date, Bhaskar allegedly publicly declared that Corkery's replacement would be superior because he is of Indian heritage. (Id. at ¶ 22.)

         Plaintiff alleges that on October 15, 2015, Corkery memorialized in writing the abusive and discriminatory conduct of Bhaskar and forwarded a copy to plaintiff and a Human Resources Generalist. (Id. at ¶ 23.) On October 19, 2015, plaintiff shared the letter with HNLLP's Vice-President of Clinical Operations and Director of Quality Services. (Id. at 24.) One month later, plaintiff was terminated, purportedly for using foul language at an after-hours banquet. (Id. at ¶¶ 26, 28.)

         Plaintiff alleges that Bhaskar's allegedly discriminatory and harassing conduct constitutes “wrongdoing” under the Whistleblower Law because it violates state and federal statutes, namely Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (“PHRA”), and “various other federal and state laws.” (Id. at ¶¶ 37-38.)

         Plaintiff argues that the case must be remanded to state court because there is no diversity of citizenship among the parties and the Complaint only raises a question of state law, i.e., a violation of the Pennsylvania Whistleblower Act. Defendants respond that embedded in plaintiff's Whistleblower Act claim is a claim for violation of Title VII and, as a result, plaintiff's Complaint does raise a substantial and actual federal question. The Court agrees with defendants.

Under 28 U.S.C. § 1441,
Except as otherwise expressly provided by Act of Congress, any civil action brought in a State court of which the district courts of the United States have original jurisdiction, may be removed by the defendant or the defendants, to the district court of the United States for the district and division embracing the place where such action is pending.

28 U.S.C.A. § 1441(a). However, “[t]he removal statutes ‘are to be strictly construed against removal and all doubts should be resolved in favor of remand.'” Boyer v. Snap-on Tools Corp., 913 F.2d 108, 111 (3d Cir. 1990) (quoting Steel Valley Auth. v. Union Switch and Signal Div., 809 F.2d 1006, 1010 (3d Cir. 1987)) (additional citations omitted).

         “Ordinarily, determining whether a particular case arises under federal law turns on the ‘well-pleaded complaint' rule.” Aetna Health Inc. v. Davila, 542 U.S. 200, 207 (2004) (internal quotations omitted) (citing Franchise Tax Bd. of State of Cal. v. Construction Laborers Vacation Trust for So. Cal., 463 U.S. 1, 9-10 (1983)). Under the rule, “federal jurisdiction exists only when a federal question is presented on the face of the plaintiff's properly pleaded complaint.” Caterpillar Inc. v. Williams, 482 U.S. 386, 392 (1987) (citing Gully v. First Nat'l Bank, 299 U.S. 109 (1936)); see also Gully, 299 U.S. at 115 (“Not every question of federal law emerging in a suit is proof that a federal law is the basis of the suit.”).

         “[T]he vast majority of cases brought under the general federal-question jurisdiction of the federal courts are those in which federal law creates the cause of action.” Merrell Dow Pharm. Inc. v. Thompson,478 U.S. 804, 808 (1986). However, a “state suit need not invoke a federal law in order to ‘arise under' it for removal purposes.” U.S. Express Lines Ltd. v. Higgins, 281 F.3d 383, 389 (3d Cir. 2002). Consequently, for purposes of federal question jurisdiction, either a “federal law creates the cause of action or . . . the plaintiff's right to relief necessarily depends on resolution ...

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