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Clay v. Advanced Computer Applications

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

December 8, 1988, Argued ; June 5, 1989, Decided

No. 80 E.D. Appeal Docket, 1988

Opinion

 [*88]  [**918]   OPINION OF THE COURT

This is an appeal by allowance from an en banc order of the Superior Court, 370 Pa.Super. 497, 536 A.2d 1375 (1988) which affirmed in part and reversed in part an order of the Court of Common Pleas of Bucks County which dismissed claims asserted [***2]  by appellees, Jeffrey and Mary Clay, seeking damages for alleged wrongful discharges from employment with Advanced Computer Applications, Inc. The Superior Court reversed the trial court's ruling that subject matter jurisdiction was lacking with respect to a claim that appellees were terminated from employment under improper discriminatory circumstances. 1 The trial court had ruled that, because it was alleged that the firings were connected with sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (hereinafter PHRC) had initial jurisdiction over the matter.  [*89]  The essence of appellees' allegation was that their at-will employment had been terminated, in November, 1984, because Mary Clay rebuffed sexual advances made by one of the employer's management level employees. Because appellees failed to seek redress for their grievances through the PHRC, the trial court held that they were barred from judicial recourse. We agree.

 [***3]  In reversing the trial court's action, the Superior Court held that the existence of administrative remedies available through the PHRC did not prevent appellees from seeking judicial remedies instead, based upon alleged common law rights.  In so holding, it expressly overruled its recent decision in Householder v. Kensington Manufacturing Co., 360 Pa.Super. 290, 520 A.2d 461 (1987), appeal denied, 516 Pa. 629, 532 A.2d 1137 (1987), wherein it was held that, in order to assert a claim for wrongful discharge from employment which is cognizable under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (hereinafter PHRA), 43 P.S. § 951 et seq., an aggrieved party must utilize administrative remedies available through the PHRC before asserting a cause of action in court. The overruling of Householder was also contrary to Commonwealth Court decisions requiring exhaustion of PHRC administrative remedies prior to seeking judicial recourse. See, e.g., Carney v. Commonwealth, Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, 45 Pa. Commw.Ct. 10, 17-18, 404 A.2d 760, 764 (1979). We believe the Householder decision [***4]  was correct, and that the Superior Court erred in declining to follow it.

As stated in Householder, 360 Pa.Super. at 294, 520 A.2d at 464, the PHRA ] provides a statutory remedy that precludes assertion of a common law tort action for wrongful discharge based upon discrimination. It should be noted that, as a general rule, there is no common law cause of action against an employer for termination of an at-will employment relationship. Geary v. United States Steel Corp., 456 Pa. 171, 319 A.2d 174 (1974). Exceptions to this rule have been recognized in only the most limited of circumstances, where discharges of at-will employees would  [*90]  threaten clear mandates of public policy. E.g., Reuther v. Fowler & Williams, Inc., 255 Pa.Super. 28, 386 A.2d 119 (1978) (employee cannot be discharged for serving on a jury).  [**919]  Nevertheless, inasmuch as appellees failed to pursue their exclusive statutory remedy for sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace, they are precluded from relief. This result is indicated by express provisions of the PHRA, as well as established judicial interpretations [***5]  of legislative intent.

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522 Pa. 86 *; 559 A.2d 917 **; 1989 Pa. LEXIS 264 ***; 51 Fair Empl. Prac. Cas. (BNA) 346; 4 I.E.R. Cas. (BNA) 1702; 115 Lab. Cas. (CCH) P56,211; 51 Empl. Prac. Dec. (CCH) P39,380

Jeffrey CLAY and Mary Clay, Individually and as Husband and Wife, Appellees, v. ADVANCED COMPUTER APPLICATIONS, INC., Bjorn J. Gruenwald, Individually and as President of Advanced Computer Applications, Inc., and Richard Baus, Appellants

Prior History:  [***1]  Appeal from the Order of the Superior Court dated January 28, 1988 under No. 01212 Philadelphia 1986.

 370 Pa.Super. 497; 536 A.2d 1375 (1988).

Disposition: Order of the Superior Court reversed in part.

CORE TERMS

at-will, cause of action, wrongful discharge, termination, courts, administrative remedy, public policy, remedies, sex, provisions, resort, employment relationship, foreclosed, grievance, election, aggrieved party, discriminatory, common-law, expertise, municipal, recourse, invoked, cases, court of common pleas, common law right, conciliation, exhausting, employees, pursued

Governments, Legislation, Statutory Remedies & Rights, Labor & Employment Law, Discrimination, General Overview, Courts, Common Law, Interpretation, Gender & Sex Discrimination, Employment Practices, Discharges, Business & Corporate Compliance, Federal & State Interrelationships, Sexual Harassment, Defenses, Antiharassment Policy, Discharges & Failures to Hire, Harassment, Employment Relationships, At Will Employment, Exceptions, Tort Exceptions, Public Policy Violations, Wrongful Termination, Public Policy, Remedies, Actionable Discrimination, Constitutional Law, Equal Protection, Gender & Sex, EEOC & State Actions, Wrongful Termination, Local Governments, Charters, Civil Rights Law, Regulators, Civil Rights Commissions, Complaints, Title VII Discrimination