United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
CHRISTOPHER C. CONNER, CHIEF JUDGE UNITED STATES DISTRICT
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
Factual Background & Procedural
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
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).
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
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).
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. (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).
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).
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. The motion is fully briefed and ripe for
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.
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, ...