A recent Iowa Supreme Court decision made headlines when the Court upheld an employer’s decision to terminate the employment of an attractive female assistant the employer viewed as a threat to his marriage. That employee filed a gender discrimination claim in response to the discharge. The Court determined that the firing was not unlawful discrimination under the Iowa Civil Rights Act because the discharge was not specifically based on her gender.
Although this case was situated in Iowa and is not controlling precedent upon employers and employees within the state of Pennsylvania, it does give rise to the question of when an employer in Pennsylvania can discharge an employee. It is well established that Pennsylvania is an state. This means that an employer in Pennsylvania can terminate the employment of an employee for any reason or no reason. There are, however, a few limitations upon this leeway given to employers by the at-will principle. Specifically, there are a number of statutes which address protected characteristics upon which an employee cannot be discharged or otherwise discriminated. Those protected characteristics include, but are not limited to, race, Color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, and veteran’s status. Additionally, an employee may not be terminated for having made a good faith complaint of harassment or discrimination based upon any of these protected characteristics. lt is also prohibited to retaliate against an employee for tiling a workers’ compensation or FMLA claim. To the extent an employer is considered qualified under the Whistleblower Law, it is also unlawful to retaliate against an employee for having made a good faith report of wrong doing or waste under the law. Although this is not an exhaustive list of those characteristics and/ or actions upon which an employee cannot be terminated and/or otherwise subjected to an adverse employment action, they are some of the more common examples.
So in practical effect, while it is permissible for an employer to terminate the employment of an employee who has demonstrated continued poor work performance, it is not permissible for an employer to terminate the employment of an employee based on his or her membership in a protected class. As with all employment law matters, there are many nuances and potential implications relative to every employment decision. To that end, we encourage all employers to tread carefully so as to not run afoul of the many employment statutes governing their interactions with their employees.