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Worker’s Whistleblower Suit Viable Despite Other State Remedy

June 17, 2020, 4:44 PM

A Pennsylvania health administrator allegedly terminated for reporting a co-worker’s conduct toward another that was unlawful under the state’s human rights law may sue under the Pennsylvania Whistleblower Law, a majority of the state’s top court said Tuesday.

Plaintiffs who aren’t themselves victims of conduct prohibited under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act may pursue whistleblower suits notwithstanding the viability of a claim under the civil rights law for the same harm, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court majority said.

Karen Harrison, a former manager with Health Network Laboratories LP, didn’t have to first exhaust the human rights law’s administrative process, the court majority said. An intermediate appeals court properly reinstated her claim, it said.

Harrison was fired in November 2015. She contended Health’s Network’s stated reason, that she used foul language at an after-hours banquet, was pretextual and said the firing was in retaliation for her attempts to deter allegedly abusive and discriminatory conduct by a Health Network IT supervisor toward another employee in the IT department.

There are obvious benefits to encouraging retaliation claims based on reports of conduct in violation of the human relations act to proceed under that specialized scheme, the majority said.

But the statute makes clear that an aggrieved party isn’t mandated to invoke the human relations law’s procedures when other laws provide a cognizable remedy based on the harm alleged, it said.

Here, Harrison seeks to enforce her right under the whistleblower law to be free from retaliation, where her report of the violation of another individual’s civil rights serves as the underlying wrongdoing supporting her claim, the majority said.

Justice Kevin M. Dougherty wrote the majority opinion, joined by Chief Justice Thomas G. Saylor and Justices Max Baer and Debra Todd.

Justices Sallie Updyke Mundy and David N. Wecht agreed with the majority’s result but joined or filed separate concurring opinions regarding the scope of the PHRA.

Justice Christine Donohue dissented, saying the the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act is the exclusive state law remedy for a claim based on retaliatory discharge for opposing discrimination in the workplace.

Michael Adam Delaney and Hahalis & Kounoupis PC represented Harrison. Hoffman Hlavac & Easterly represented Health Network.

The case is Harrison v. Health Network Labs., LP, 2020 BL 221846, Pa., No. 51 MAP 2019, 6/16/20.

To contact the reporter on this story: Julie Steinberg in Washington at jsteinberg@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloomberglaw.com; Nicholas Datlowe at ndatlowe@bloomberglaw.com