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Runion v. Equipment Transport, LLC

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

September 1, 2017




         Plaintiff Bruce Runion ("Runion") brings this action against his former employer, defendant Equipment Transport, LLC ("Equipment Transport"), alleging that Equipment Transport terminated him in retaliation for filing a workers' compensation claim. Before the court is Equipment Transport's motion (Doc. 27) for summary judgment. The court will grant Equipment Transport's motion.

         I. Factual Background & Procedural History[1]

         Equipment Transport provides drilling and completion services to oil and gas operators. (Doc. 27-2 ¶ 1). Equipment Transport hired Runion on May 6, 2014 as a laborer to perform sundry tasks as assigned including, but not limited to, washing and cleaning tanks and equipment used in the natural gas drilling industry. (Id. ¶¶ 2-5). Runion served on a six-person labor crew under the supervision of Beverly Miszler ("Miszler"). (Id. ¶¶ 6-7). As part of his employment application, Runion executed various documents outlining his rights and duties under the Workers' Compensation Act, 77 Pa. Stat, and Cons. Stat. Ann. § 1 et seq. (Doc. 27-3; Runion Dep. 84:13-85:6, Oct. 25, 2016 ("Runion Dep.")).[2]

         On September 30, 2014, Runion and fellow laborers were attempting to suction byproduct out of a Newaltas machine into a waste truck. (Doc. 27-2 ¶ 14, Pearson Dep. 10:5-11:2, Dec. 1, 2016 ("Pearson Dep.")). Runion ingested byproduct when the hoses came apart and sprayed the laborers. (Pearson Dep. 11:2-7; Runion Dep. 43:9-44:2). Runion informed Miszler, his immediate supervisor, that he was going home to wash off the byproduct and then to the hospital to get "checked out." (Runion Dep. 44:3-6). Runion claims to have also informed Miszler that he was "going to tell the hospital that it was going to be a workmen's comp. related incident." (Id. at 44:6-8). Runion vomited several times at home and then checked into the Montrose Hospital emergency room. (Id. at 48:12-49:2).

         Emergency room physician Dr. Hassan Khalil attended to Runion and took bloodwork and induced vomiting. (Id. at 49:21-50:8). Runion does not recall whether he told Dr. Khalil that his treatment would be a workers' compensation claim. (Id. at 60:6-15). Runion testified that he did inform a hospital billing administrator and a nurse regarding same and filled out paperwork related to his injury and workers' compensation. (Id. at 58:24-60:5). Dr. Khalil cleared Runion to return to work with instructions to schedule a follow-up appointment and to see a toxicologist because the waste byproduct might contain radon or other harmful substances. (Id. at 50:11-53:5; Pearson Dep. 18:12-20:7; Witbeck Dep. 26:1-29:13, Nov. 21, 2016 ("Witbeck Dep.")).

         Safety supervisor Marc Vincent ("Vincent") visited the work site on October 1, 2014 and spoke with Runion about the incident and his decision to seek medical attention. (Runion Dep. 66:8-69:12). Vincent was purportedly upset that Runion had "put [his injury-related medical expenses] through workmen's comp. at the hospital." (Id. at 69:13-17). On October 2, 2014, supervisor Bryan Witbeck ("Witbeck") visited the job site and Runion apprised him of the incident and that he "put [his injury] under workmen's comp. to cover for the hospital bill." (Id. at 72:2-24).

         Equipment Transport assigned Runion exclusively to flow back containment tank cleaning duties during the two weeks following the September 30, 2014 incident. (Id. at 76:1-5; Doc. 34-6). Runion experienced a significant decrease in scheduled hours over that two week period. (Doc. 34-7). Equipment Transport terminated Runion's employment on October 15, 2014. (Doc. 27-3, Ex. D, Decl. of Beverly Miszler ¶¶ 12, 14, Jan. 16, 2017 ("Miszler Decl."); Runion Dep. 32:2-5, 90:8-14). Equipment Transport listed the following reasons for Runion's termination: failure to wear personal protective equipment; damaging company property; and making terroristic threats against Equipment Transport employees and company property.[3] (Doc. 27-2 ¶ 24). Runion's past disciplinary history also included insubordination, (Doc. 27-3, Ex. A, Tab G; Doc. 27-3, Ex. D, Tab A), and turning in a timesheet containing sexual content. (Doc. 27-3, Ex. A, Decl. of Arthur Streeter ¶ 18, Jan. 16, 2017; Doc. 27-3, Ex. A, Tab C).

         Runion clarifies that the reprimand for failing to wear personal protective equipment was due to his visor being tilted at an incorrect angle. (Runion Dep. 88:20-89:14). He denies damaging company property, specifically an eyewash station. (Id. at 89:15-22). He also denies making terroristic threats toward Equipment Transport employees or company property. (Doc. 33 ¶¶ 17, 23, 24). Runion does not recall being reprimanded for turning in a timesheet containing sexual content. (Runion Dep. 87:15-88:16). Runion avers that the true reason Equipment Transport decreased his hours, assigned him to tank cleaning duty, and ultimately fired him was his decision to pursue workers' compensation. (Doc. 33 ¶¶ 24, 29, 30). Equipment Transport maintains that the actions listed supra were legitimate, non-retaliatory reasons for Runion's termination. (Doc. 35 at 7-9). Equipment Transport also points to an industry-wide slowdown as a factor. (Doc. 27-2 ¶ 32). Equipment Transport closed the Hallstead, Pennsylvania plant where Runion worked six months later in April 2015. (Id. ¶ 33).

         Runion initiated the case by filing a complaint (Doc. 1) on November 11, 2015. Therein, Runion asserts one common law claim: that Equipment Transport violated the public policy of Pennsylvania by terminating Runion in retaliation for exercising his rights under the Workers' Compensation Act. (Doc. 1 ¶¶ 21-25). Runion filed an amended complaint (Doc. 19) on March 1, 2016 with leave of court (Doc. 18) for the purpose of clarifying the scope of his protected activity to include expressing an intent to file for workers' compensation. Following a period of discovery, Equipment Transport filed the instant motion (Doc. 27) for summary judgment, together with supporting papers.[4] The motion is fully briefed and ripe for disposition.

         II. Legal Standard

         Through summary adjudication, the court may dispose of those claims that do not present a "genuine dispute as to any material fact" and for which a jury trial would be an empty and unnecessary formality. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The burden of proof tasks the non-moving party to come forth with "affirmative evidence, beyond the allegations of the pleadings, " in support of its right to relief. Pappas v. City of Lebanon, 331 F.Supp.2d 311, 315 (M.D. Pa. 2004); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). This evidence must be adequate, as a matter of law, to sustain a judgment in favor of the non-moving party on the claims. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250-57 (1986); Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587-89 (1986). Only if this threshold is met may the cause of action proceed. See Pappas, 331 F.Supp.2d at 315.

         III. Discussion

         Pennsylvania law provides that employers may terminate employees "for any or no reason" unless the employee is subject to an employment agreement. Shick v. Shirey, 716 A.2d 1231, 1233 (Pa. 1998) (quoting Geary v. U.S. Steel Corp., 319 A.2d 174, 176 (Pa. 1974)). The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, however, has carved out an exception to the at-will employment doctrine: employees may bring wrongful termination claims when their termination "would violate a 'clear mandate of public policy.'" McLaughlin v. Gastrointestinal Specialists, Inc., 750 A.2d 283, 313 (Pa. 2000) (quoting Geary, 319 A.2d at 180). The exception applies only when the Pennsylvania legislature formulates a public policy or "a given policy is so obviously for or against public health, safety, ...

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