Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Receipt of UC Benefits Not Enough to Rebut Non-Retaliatory Reason

The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania recently decided a claim under the Whistleblower Act in Evans v. Thomas Jefferson University, 81 A.3d 1062 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2013). In many ways, the case was uninteresting - Plaintiff couldn't establish a causal connection, couldn't establish that she engaged in protected activity, and lost accordingly.

The Court did touch on one interesting issue though:
[Plaintiff] also argues that the decision of the Unemployment Compensation Board of Review that she was entitled to unemployment benefits shows that there are material issues of fact as to whether her discharge was retaliatory. We do not agree. The issue in the unemployment case was whether [her] behavior rose to the level of willful misconduct sufficient to deny her benefits, not whether [Defendant] had a legitimate reason for discharging her. See Webb v. Unemployment Compensation Board of Review, 670 A.2d 1212, 1215 (Pa.Cmwlth.1996). Nothing in the unemployment decision suggests either that [Plaintiff] was discharged for any reason other than the co-worker's complaint or that [Defendant] did not believe that [she] had acted rudely to the co-worker. Indeed, the Unemployment Compensation Board of Review found that “[d]uring the course of her employment, the claimant received warnings about rude behavior to others” and that Evans was discharged for the incident with the co-worker.
Id. at 1071-72 (record citations omitted).

If you're a plaintiff in an employment case, I still think you want that UC decision in your favor (certainly, you still want the benefits!). It shows that the employer has failed to establish that the employee was fired for "willful misconduct." But, that doesn't preclude the employer from showing that it had a legitimate non-retaliatory reason (a lower threshold).

In this case at least, the mere fact that the employee was receiving UC benefits was not enough to rebut the defendant's evidence of a legitimate non-retaliatory reason for her termination. The Commonwealth Court affirmed the trial court's grant of summary judgment in favor of the employer.