Justia Pennsylvania Supreme Court Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Labor & Employment Law
The Bert Company v. Turk, et al.
The Bert Company, dba Northwest Insurance Services (“Northwest”), was an insurance brokerage firm with clientele in northwestern Pennsylvania and western New York. From 2005 to 2017, Matthew Turk (“Turk”) was employed as an insurance broker with Northwest. First National Insurance Agency, LLC (“FNIA” or "First National") was an insurance brokerage firm. To grow its business in that region, First National developed a plan to takeover Northwest, initially by convincing key Northwest employees to leave Northwest for FNIA and to bring their clients with them. Through the fall and winter of 2016, Turk repeatedly met with First National about the plan with the hope that First National could gut Northwest by hiring the bulk of its highest producers, acquiring their clients, and ultimately forcing that company to sell its remaining book of clients. Pursuant to the plan, Turk remained at Northwest to convince the company to sell its remaining business to First National. Northwest refused, choosing instead to fire Turk and initiate legal action. In this appeal by permission, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court opined on the jurisprudence of the United State Supreme Court addressing the constitutionality of an award of punitive damages by a civil jury in the Commonwealth. The Pennsylvania Court's grant of allowance addressed the narrow issue of the appropriate ratio calculation measuring the relationship between the amount of punitive damages awarded against multiple defendants who are joint tortfeasors and the compensatory damages awarded. The superior court calculated the punitive to compensatory damages ratio using a per-defendant approach, rather than a per-judgment approach. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court generally endorsed the per-defendant approach as consistent with federal constitutional principles that require consideration of a defendant’s due process rights. Further, the Court concluded that under the facts and circumstances of this case, it was appropriate to consider the potential harm that was likely to occur from the concerted conduct of the defendants in determining whether the measure of punishment was both reasonable and proportionate. View "The Bert Company v. Turk, et al." on Justia Law
Javitz v. Luzerne Co., et al.
On August 4, 2014, Appellant Donna Javitz became the Director of Human Resources for Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. Her union-related responsibilities included participating in investigatory meetings for disciplinary matters involving union employees. In March 2015, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (“AFSCME” or “Union”) filed an unfair labor practice charge (“ULP Charge”) with the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board against Luzerne County, raising allegations concerning Javitz’s conduct in two investigatory meetings. Paula Schnelly, an administrative assistant in the appellate division of the Luzerne County’s District Attorney’s Office and Union president, attended the investigatory meetings referenced in the ULP Charge as a representative for the Union members. Attached to the ULP Charge were documents in support of the allegations, among them were what appeared to Javitz to be transcripts of the investigatory meetings at issue. The highly detailed nature of the documents, as well as Javitz’s recollection that Schnelly did not take notes during investigatory meetings, gave rise to a suspicion on Javitz’s part that Schnelly recorded the investigatory meeting in violation of the Wiretap Act. Javitz took her concern to the Director of Administrative Services, David Parsnik. Together they took the matter to the Luzerne County District Attorney. The District Attorney stated that she would refer the matter to the Attorney General’s Office to investigate, as Schnelly’s employment in the District Attorney’s office created a conflict of interest. Javitz contended, she learned the County Manager, Robert Lawton, instructed the District Attorney to drop the matter. In October 2015, the Union and County settled the ULP Charge. A week later, Javitz was terminated from her position. Javitz filed suit in federal district court, naming Luzerne County, Lawton, and Parsnik as defendants. Her complaint raised federal and state claims, including a claim under the Whistleblower Law. The issue this case presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court related to the standard that a plaintiff must meet in order to establish a prima facie claim under Pennsylvania’s Whistleblower Law and whether the Commonwealth Court erred in its application of that standard. The Court concluded that the Commonwealth Court did so err. Its order was vacated and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "Javitz v. Luzerne Co., et al." on Justia Law
Franczyk v. Home Depot, et al.
Plaintiff-Respondent Lindsay Franczyk, was working at a Home Depot store when a customer’s dog bit her. Franczyk reported the bite promptly to her supervisors, Philip Rogers and Thomas Mason (collectively with Home Depot, “Defendants”). Franczyk later was diagnosed with cubital tunnel syndrome, which required surgical repair. Franczyk claimed and received Workers’ Compensation Act ("WCA") benefits. Franczyk sued Defendants. In her relevant claim, Franczyk asserts that Defendants failed to investigate the incident sufficiently, and that they negligently allowed the dog owner and witnesses to leave without obtaining identifying information. She contended these acts and omissions denied her the opportunity to file a third-party suit against the dog owner. After the pleading and discovery phases of the litigation concluded, Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, claiming immunity under the WCA’s exclusivity provision. The trial court recognized a novel exception and denied the employer’s motion for summary judgment. The Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s decision. However, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court disagreed: "the exception proffered by the lower courts cannot be reconciled with the Act’s design, purpose, or plain language." Thus, judgment was reversed. View "Franczyk v. Home Depot, et al." on Justia Law
O’Neill v. SERS
Pennsylvania’s Public Employee Pension Forfeiture Act (“Act 140”) mandated the forfeiture of the pension of a public official or public employee when he or she was convicted of certain Pennsylvania crimes related to public office or public employment, or was convicted of federal offenses that were “substantially the same” as the forfeit-triggering state crimes. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted discretionary review to consider whether a federal conviction for false statements to a federal agent, 18 U.S.C. § 1001 was “substantially the same” as the Pennsylvania crime of false reports to law enforcement authorities, 18 Pa.C.S. § 4906, for purposes of Act 140. The Supreme Court concluded that the two offenses were not “substantially the same,” and, thus, the Commonwealth Court erred in affirming the forfeiture of the pension of Appellant, former Municipal Court of Philadelphia County Judge Joseph O’Neill. View "O'Neill v. SERS" on Justia Law
Arlet v. WCAB (L&I)
In 2011, during the course and scope of his employment as a shipwright, Claimant Robert Arlet slipped and fell on an icy sidewalk on the premises of his employer, Flagship Niagara League (Employer), sustaining injuries. Employer had obtained a Commercial Hull Policy from Acadia Insurance Company (Insurer). Through the policy, Insurer provided coverage for damages caused by the Brig Niagara and for Jones Act protection and indemnity coverage for the “seventeen (17) crewmembers” of the Brig Niagara. Employer had also at some point obtained workers’ compensation insurance from the State Workers’ Insurance Fund (SWIF). Insurer paid benefits to Claimant under its Commercial Hull Policy’s “maintenance and cure” provision. Claimant filed for workers’ compensation benefits. Employer asserted Claimant’s remedy was exclusively governed by the Jones Act. Employer also filed to join SWIF as an additional insurer in the event the Workers' Compensation Act (WCA) was deemed to supply the applicable exclusive remedy, and Employer was found to be liable thereunder. SWIF denied coverage, alleging Employer’s policy was lapsed at the time of Claimant’s injury. Thereafter, Claimant filed an Uninsured Employers Guaranty Fund (UEGF) claim petition, asserting the fund’s liability in the event he prevailed, and Employer was deemed uncovered by SWIF and failed to pay. The Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board (WCAB) found that as a land-based employee, Claimant did not meet the definition of seaman under the Jones Act and was, therefore, entitled to pursue his workers’ compensation claim. The issue this case presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's review was one of first impression: the right of an insurer to subrogation under the WCA. The Supreme Court concluded Insurer’s Commercial Hull Policy did not cover Claimant, because Claimant was not a “seaman” or crew member. The WCA’s exclusive remedy applied, but Insurer was seeking subrogation for payment it made on a loss it did not cover. "[T]he 'no-coverage exception' to the general equitable rule precluding an insurer from pursuing subrogation against its insured comports with the purposes and public policy supporting the rule and hereby adopt it as the law of this Commonwealth. ... any equitable rule precluding an insurer from seeking subrogation against its insured is best tempered by the exception adopted herein today." View "Arlet v. WCAB (L&I)" on Justia Law
Whalen v. Public School Empl. Ret Board
The question in this case was whether a lump-sum payment that a school district made to settle a principal’s age-discrimination claim should have been included in that employee’s retirement benefit calculation. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded that the Commonwealth Court disregarded the Retirement Code’s statutory definition of “compensation” and instead deferred to the intent of the settling parties to treat the payment as retirement-covered compensation. Accordingly, judgment was reversed. View "Whalen v. Public School Empl. Ret Board" on Justia Law
Lorino v. WCAB (Commonwealth of PA)
Appellant Vincent Lorino worked as an equipment operator for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (“Employer”) when he slipped on the running board of the truck he used for work and fell backwards, injuring his lower back and left hip. Employer accepted liability for a low back sprain/tear and a left hip sprain/tear pursuant to two medical-only notices of compensation payable (“NCP”). In February 2017, Employer referred Appellant for an independent medical examination (“IME”). The IME examiner determined Appellant had fully recovered from his injuries, that any pain Appellant experienced was the result of pre-existing degenerative disc disease, and that Appellant required no further treatment. As a result, Employer filed a petition to terminate Appellant’s treatment. Appellant retained counsel for the hearing on Employer’s termination petition. At the hearing, Appellant testified he had been receiving treatment from Dr. Shivani Dua, who administered epidural steroid injections to alleviate the pain in his back and left hip. Appellant explained that while the steroid injections would alleviate his pain for a few months, the pain would slowly return, at which point he would need to return for additional injections. Appellant indicated he received his most recent injection approximately two to three weeks before the IME. At the conclusion of the hearing, Appellant requested, in addition to continued medical benefits, attorney’s fees pursuant to Section 440 of the Workers' Compensation Act, asserting that, because he received only medical benefits, he was unable to retain the services of an attorney based on a traditional contingent fee arrangement, and instead was required to enter into an hourly-rate fee agreement. At issue before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was the propriety of the Commonwealth Court’s construction of Section 440 of the Act as precluding an award of attorney’s fees to a claimant when an employer established a reasonable basis for seeking a termination of benefits. The Supreme Court concluded the Commonwealth Court’s interpretation of Section 440 was contrary to the statute’s express language, and, therefore, reversed in part and remanded. View "Lorino v. WCAB (Commonwealth of PA)" on Justia Law
Quigley v. UCBR
In this appeal, the issue presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's consideration was whether Appellant, the Unemployment Compensation Board of Review (“Board”), erred in reversing the award of unemployment compensation (“UC”) benefits to Appellee Caitlin Quigley (“Claimant”) by sua sponte concluding she was ineligible for such benefits, where the issue of her eligibility was not raised in her appeal to the Board or below. In . 2017, Claimant was laid off from her job as the Director of Communication and Development of a Philadelphia area nonprofit service corporation. As a result, she applied for UC benefits In the questionnaire accompanying her application for benefits, she noted that she had been engaged in a “sideline business”1 since 2015, which involved providing writing and editing services on a freelance basis to another nonprofit corporation. Claimant also indicated in the questionnaire that she anticipated a reduced income in 2017 from these activities, and she attached to the questionnaire, pursuant to its instructions, a copy of Schedule C of her 2016 federal tax return showing the income she had received from this sideline business during that year. The service center issued a “Notice of Determination,” in which it ruled that Claimant was eligible to receive UC benefits. After receipt of this decision, Claimant considered the amount of prorated income attributed to her sideline business (and deducted from her benefits) to be too high. Consequently, proceeding pro se, she filed a petition for appeal with the Department in which she explained: "I understand that it makes sense to prorate it, but the sideline business is not a significant source of income for me." After reconsideration of her appeal, the Board found Claimant ineligible for benefits, and denied further reconsideration. After careful review, the Supreme Court determined that the Board did err, and, consequently, affirmed the decision of the Commonwealth Court, which reversed the Board’s ruling and remanded. View "Quigley v. UCBR" on Justia Law
Peters v. WCAB
Jonathan Peters (Claimant) was employed by Cintas Corporation (Employer) as a uniform sales representative. In this position Claimant worked half-days in Employer’s Allentown, Pennsylvania branch office on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays, and traveled the remainder of those days, as well as Thursdays and Fridays, to meet with, and present products to, potential customers in the region around Reading, Pennsylvania. Following his last sales appointment on February 27, 2015, Claimant attended an Employer-sponsored event at a pub in Allentown called the Tilted Kilt. After leaving the event Claimant was injured in a motor vehicle accident. Alleging that the motor vehicle accident occurred during the course of his employment with Employer, Claimant filed a claim petition seeking partial disability benefits from February 28, 2015 to April 2, 2015, and total disability benefits from April 3, 2015 onwards. Employer responded, specifically denying that Claimant was in the course of his employment at the time of the motor vehicle accident. In a November 2016 decision, the WCJ denied and dismissed Claimant’s claim petition. The WCJ explained that for his injuries to be compensable under the Act, Claimant had the burden of demonstrating that he was in the course of his employment with Employer at the time of the motor vehicle accident, which required him to show that he was actually engaged in the furtherance of Employer’s business or affairs at the time of the accident. The WCJ wrote that he did not doubt that work was discussed at the event but that work-related discussions do “not transform every meeting into a business meeting.”Claimant then appealed to the Commonwealth Court, which affirmed. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed, finding Claimant remained in the course of his employment through the event at the Tilted Kilt. Judgment was reversed and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "Peters v. WCAB" on Justia Law
Heimbach, et al. v. Amazon.com, et al.
The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals certified two questions to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court: (1) whether time spent on an employer’s premises waiting to undergo, and undergoing, mandatory security screening is compensable as “hours worked” within the meaning of the Pennsylvania Minimum Wage Act1 (“PMWA”); and (2) whether the doctrine of de minimis non curat lex, as described in Anderson v. Mt. Clemens Pottery Co., 328 U.S. 680 (1946), applied to bar claims brought under the PMWA. This case arose out of a class action suit for unpaid wages brought by Appellants Neil Heimbach and Karen Salasky (“Employees”) who worked for Appellees (collectively “Amazon”) at Amazon’s warehouse facility in Pennsylvania. The Supreme Court replied: (1) time spent on an employer’s premises waiting to undergo, and undergoing, mandatory security screening constituted “hours worked” under the PMWA; and (2) there exists no de minimis exception to the PMWA. View "Heimbach, et al. v. Amazon.com, et al." on Justia Law