Thursday, January 24, 2019

Pennsylvania Superior Court allows whistleblower claim to circumvent PHRA administrative process

Here's an interesting (albeit unpublished) decision from the Superior Court of Pennsylvania: Harrison v. Health Network Laboratories, LP.

The plaintiff alleged that her employer fired her in retaliation for reporting that her supervisor was creating a hostile work environment for non-Indian employees. If you practice law in Pennsylvania, this probably sounds like a classic Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA) claim. The PHRA prohibits retaliation for protected activity, like reporting discriminatory harassment.

Here's the thing - the plaintiff filed a claim under the Pennsylvania Whistleblower Law (PWL) instead. The PWL prohibits retaliation for a good faith report of "wrongdoing." She claims her employer fired her for reporting the "wrongdoing" of creating a hostile work environment.

The employer argued that the PHRA pre-empts the PWL. The Superior Court rejected this argument primarily because the PHRA pre-dates the PWL. So, the Court concluded that the employee may proceed with her PWL claim.

Why does this matter? It matters because the PHRA requires that plaintiffs exhaust their administrative remedies before they file a lawsuit in court. Employees generally must go through the administrative process with either the EEOC (if federal discrimination statutes are involved) and/or the PHRC (if state discrimination statutes are involved). This decision appears to allow retaliation plaintiffs to just skip those pesky administrative processes and go straight to court.

One important note: The PWL only protects employees of a "public body" (although, that term has been broadly interpreted to include recipients of public funds as well as government entities).

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