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Huyett v. Doug's Family Pharmacy

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

April 20, 2017


         Appeal from the Judgment Entered February 5, 2016 In the Court of Common Pleas of Berks County Civil Division at No(s): 08-4706



          BOWES, J.

         This matter comes before this panel following a prior decision vacating a judgment and remanding to the trial court for its application of the proper legal standard to determine whether to award attorney fees pursuant to § 962(c.2) of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (the "PHRA"), 43 P.S. § 951 et seq.. See Huyett v. Doug's Family Pharm., 122 A.3d 1136 (Pa.Super. 2015) (unpublished memorandum). Valerie Huyett, the prevailing party below, renews her challenge to the trial court's denial of attorney fees. After careful review, we affirm.

         We glean the relevant facts from our review of the record. Valerie Huyett, a 38-year-old married mother of two young children, worked for eleven years at Doug's Family Pharmacy as a pharmacy technician. She received pay raises annually. Douglas Hess was the owner/operator of the Pharmacy, and his wife, Lisa Hess, assisted him in running the business.

         On August 24, 2006, Ms. Huyett was diagnosed with Hodgkins lymphoma, a form of cancer. She communicated that diagnosis to her immediate supervisor, Stephanie Mitchell, a pharmacist. Four days later, on August 30, 2006, she received a telephone call from Mr. Hess. According to Ms. Huyett, Mr. Hess told her that he was terminating her employment because he could not deal with the scheduling issues related to her treatments. He subsequently proposed that she sign a formal resignation, and in return he would not contest her collection of unemployment compensation benefits, he would pay her for three weeks of vacation, an additional one week's pay, and two sick days. N.T. Trial, 10/10/12, at 225. When she refused to sign the resignation, he opposed her receipt of unemployment compensation benefits. Nonetheless, she was awarded unemployment.

         Ms. Mitchell provided critical evidence on Ms. Huyett's behalf. She testified that she started at Doug's Family Pharmacy in September 2005 as a part-time pharmacist, and was a full-time employee from January 2006 to May 2007. She was impressed with Ms. Huyett and described her as "one of the best technicians that I ever worked with." N.T., 10/11/12, at 474.

         Ms. Mitchell verified that, prior to receiving the cancer diagnosis, Ms. Huyett had complained of frequent sore throats and she had a visible, palpable lump on her throat. Ms. Mitchell and Mrs. Hess had actually touched the lump. On one occasion prior to August 2006, Ms. Mitchell recalled that Ms. Huyett left work to go to an urgent care center as she was having trouble swallowing. According to Ms. Mitchell, both Mr. and Mrs. Hess were aware that Ms. Huyett was scheduled to undergo a biopsy and she personally discussed with them the possibility that Ms. Huyett had cancer.

         Ms. Huyett telephoned Ms. Mitchell on August 24, 2006, and informed her that she had Hodgkins lymphoma. Ms. Mitchell told her she did not have to come to work that day, but Ms. Huyett insisted on working. Id. at 485. Ms. Huyett did not come to work on August 30, 2006, however, because she had been fired the night before. Ms. Mitchell mentioned to Mr. Hess that day that she could not believe that Ms. Huyett no longer worked there and that she had been diagnosed with cancer. Id. at 493. Mr. Hess responded that her termination was best, both for him and for Ms. Huyett, as "she could go out and collect unemployment. She doesn't have to worry about showing up for work, she could be at home going through her treatments, she could collect her unemployment check and he doesn't have to worry about getting coverage for work because of -- when she is calling out sick with her treatments." Id. He called it a "win/win situation." Id. When Ms. Huyett recovered, Mr. Hess would "hire her back." Id. Mr. Hess did not disparage Ms. Huyett or her work performance.

         Ms. Mitchell testified that approximately one month after Ms. Huyatt's termination, she observed Mrs. Hess walking around with a clipboard making a list of mistakes Ms. Huyett had made. Mrs. Hess questioned Ms. Mitchell and the other employees about what they had observed and noted their responses.

         Mr. Hess justified the firing based on Ms. Huyett's declining work performance. He told the jury that, for the first nine years of her employment, Ms. Huyett was an excellent employee. During the final two years, however, her performance declined. She wore inappropriate attire to work and was habitually late. He also provided examples of mistakes made by Ms. Huyett and instances where she gave inappropriate advice to customers. Some of these incidents were confirmed by Mrs. Hess and by Emily O'Neill, an employee who worked at the Pharmacy during the relevant period. Ms. Huyett disagreed with their accounts of her work performance.

         At trial, Ms. Mitchell disputed that Ms. Huyett arrived to work late on the day of her diagnosis, or that she was tardy and appeared hung over on August 28, 2006. She was confronted on cross-examination with an email that purported to be from her account and that was critical of Ms. Huyett's performance. Ms. Mitchell denied that she authored the entire email and she posited that someone else had added the paragraphs that disparaged Ms. Huyett. Ms. Mitchell subsequently left her employment at Doug's Pharmacy and started working full-time at CVS.

         It was Ms. Huyett's contention that she was fired due to her disability and she claimed an economic loss of $18, 894.92. At trial, Ms. Huyett presented her treating oncologist, Daniel L. Foreman, M.D., who opined that, she "suffered physical and mental impairment affecting one or more of her major life activities as a result of her diagnosis and treatment." N.T., 10/9/12, at 58. However, her treatment did not affect her ability to work as a pharmacy technician. Id. at 59. She was capable of performing those duties "without assistance, adjustment, or accommodation." Id. at 60. The administration of her chemotherapy could be arranged to accommodate her work schedule. Id.

         In support of his position that Ms. Huyett's termination was motivated by her inadequate work performance rather than discrimination, Mr. Hess also offered the testimony of his attorney, J. Kitridge Fegley. The attorney confirmed that Mr. and Mrs. Hess mentioned to him in early August 2006 that they intended to terminate an eleven-year employee when they returned from their vacation. After Ms. Huyett was diagnosed with cancer just weeks later, they sought his legal advice about terminating Ms. Huyett in light of the diagnosis.

         The jury returned a verdict in favor of Ms. Huyett and against Doug's Family Pharmacy. It awarded damages for economic loss in the full amount sought and $2, 500.00 in non-economic damages. As the prevailing plaintiff, Ms. Huyett petitioned for attorney fees totaling $106, 429.30 pursuant to § 962(c.2) of the PHRA. The trial court denied attorney fees because it did not believe the jury's verdict was supported by the evidence as it "did not and does not find the testimony of Stephanie Mitchell to be credible." Order, 1/17/14, at 1-2. Doug's Family Pharmacy filed a motion for post-trial relief arguing that the jury's verdict was not supported by the evidence. The motion was denied.

         Ms. Huyett appealed to this Court and alleged, inter alia, that the trial court exceeded the permissible scope of its discretion and usurped the jury's credibility determinations when it did not find Stephanie Mitchell's testimony credible. This Court found that the trial court misapplied the law, vacated the order, and remanded for the trial court to apply the proper legal standard in determining whether Ms. Huyett was entitled to attorney fees. The trial court was directed to weigh the evidence in accord with our Supreme Court's decision in Hoy v. Angelone, 720 A.2d 745 (Pa. 1998). Doug's Family Pharmacy's petition for allowance of appeal to the Supreme Court was denied. See Huyett v. Doug's Family Pharm., 129 A.3d 1243 (Pa. 2015) (unpublished decision).

         Upon remand, the trial court weighed the evidence presented at trial to determine whether Doug's Family Pharmacy had engaged in an unlawful discriminatory practice in violation of the PHRA. It concluded that the evidence was "weak" and did not support a finding of a ...

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