“Wrongful termination” or a “termination in breach of public policy” refers to a narrow situation when termination of an at-will employee might be determined to be illegal by Pennsylvania courts. A termination might be found to be wrongful and in breach of public policy if it violates an important public policy of the Commonwealth, normally as expressed in a Pennsylvania state constitutional enactment, statute or regulation. The public policy infringed by the discharge must be a Pennsylvania public policy, not one based on another state’s law or Federal law, under current cases. Wrongful termination remedies are not available in situations where the statute cited as the source of public policy also contains remedies for employment termination(s). For example, a discriminatory termination can be pursued under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act and therefore, the courts have held it cannot be pursued as a wrongful termination.
Several categories of public policy cases have emerged. Generally, an employer may not terminate an employee because the employee seeks to exercise a public right or duty established by statute. For example, it has been held in court that an employer could not legally terminate an employee called to jury service. Pennsylvania courts have also held that terminating an employee because the employee filed a workers’ compensation claim was illegal. Courts have also protected at-will employees who refused to engage in illegal acts for their employer. For example, one case held that it was illegal for a tavern to fire a waitress who had refused to serve inebriated patrons.
There are also many cases where courts have refused to recognize a termination as violating public policy. In fact, there are many more cases in which employees have not been successful in establishing wrongful termination claims than there are in which employees have succeeded with their claims. These many cases illustrate the narrow nature of this legal remedy. There is a widespread misconception that the wrongful termination remedy prohibits terminations that appear to be “unjust” or “unfair”; that misconception is unfounded. There must be a specific Pennsylvania public policy directly violated by the termination.