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The following is an excerpt from an article written by Peter J. Weidman for a continuing legal education presentation on Law School for Non-Profits sponsored by the Montgomery Bar Association.


The Doctrine of Employment at Will in Pennsylvania


The doctrine of employment at will is one of Pennsylvania’s most important and enduring legal principles.  First articulated by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 1891, the doctrine quite literally has been the foundation of every employment relationship in the Commonwealth for nearly 120 years.  Although frequently and aggressively challenged by litigants, scholars and policy-makers, the principle has had impressive staying power.  In recent decades, the doctrine’s reach has been limited by federal and state statutes protecting the rights of employees and by a narrow set of judge-made exceptions based on public policy, but the basic tenet remains largely unchanged since its earliest pronouncement. 


The doctrine can be simply stated.  Under Pennsylvania law, in the absence of an agreement to the contrary between the employer and employee, the employment relationship is “at will,” meaning that either the employer or the employee may terminate the relationship at any time, for any reason, or for no reason at all. 


The rationale for the doctrine “was based on the assumption that it was necessary to preserve managerial discretion in the work place and to maintain freedom of contract.”  Darlington v. General Electric, 350 Pa. Super 183, 189, 190, 504 A.2d 306 (1986).  “The essence of the employment at-will presumption is that the decision to discharge is best left to the managerial prerogative and generally will not be reviewed in a judicial forum.”  Veno v. Meredith, 357 Pa. Super. 85, 99, 515 A.2d 571, 577 (1986). 


There are two ways in which the employer and employer may alter the at-will relationship: 


   by entering into an express agreement that guarantees the employee’s employment for a definite term, or that otherwise limits the grounds on which the employer may terminate the relationship.  Holewinski v. Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, 437 Pa. Super. 174, 649 A.2d 712 (1994), allocatur denied, 540 Pa. 641, 659 A.2d 560 (1995); or


   through an implied agreement that arises because of “additional consideration passing from the employee to the employer from which the court can infer the parties intended to overcome the at-will presumption.”  Anderson v. Haverford College, 851 F. Supp. 179, 181 (E.D. Pa. 1994) (applying PA law).


Even when the relationship between the employer and employee is at will, the employer’s right to discharge is not absolute, but is limited by two non-contractual exceptions:


   The employer may be subject to federal, state or local statutes or ordinances that restrict the grounds on which the employer may discharge employees.  These statutes include, for example, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. 2000e, et seq., which prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, gender, religion, and national origin. 


   The courts in Pennsylvania recognize a narrow common law exception to the at-will doctrine, permitting a discharged employee to pursue a tort claim for wrongful discharge where the discharge violates a clear mandate of public policy.  See, e.g., Woodson v. AMF Leisureland Centers, Inc., 842 F.2d 699 (3d Cir. 1988) (applying PA law) (permitting a wrongful discharge claim by a bartender whose employment was terminated because he refused to serve a visibly intoxicated patron). 


For more information concerning the doctrine of employment at will in Pennsylvania, please contact Peter J. Weidman, 610-940-1686, pweidman@weidmanlaw.com.

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