Is the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act the exclusive remedy for a retaliation claim under the Pennsylvania Whistleblower Law where the wrong alleged by the whistleblower is unlawful discrimination against a third party?

Harrison v. Health Network Lab, et al, 203 A.3d 307 (Pa Super. 2018), allocatur granted June 27, 2019, appeal docket 51 MAP 2019

Karen Harrison brought a retaliation claim under the Pennsylvania Whistleblower Law (PWL) based on her allegation that she was pretextually fired from her employment for calling attention to a manager’s alleged discrimination against another employee. The trial court found that the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA) pre-empted the PWL claim and dismissed Harrison’s amended complaint for failure to exhaust or pursue her PHRA administrative remedy.

The Superior Court reversed, reasoning that the complaint clearly stated a claim under the PWL:

On independent review, accepting as true all well-pleaded, material, and relevant facts alleged in the complaint and every inference that is fairly deducible from those facts we conclude that Appellant asserted a legally cognizable cause of action under the Whistleblower Law.

We read Appellant’s complaint as raising a whistleblower claim only. Nevertheless, we recognize that by inartful and overly generalized drafting counsel for Appellant left open the interpretation adopted by the trial court that she could have been asserting a PHRA claim as well as a whistleblower claim. To the extent that the trial court correctly discerned that Appellant sought to raise a PHRA claim, we agree that that remedy is foreclosed by the administrative complaint requirement. However, Appellant unequivocally raised a valid Whistleblower complaint.

Slip Op. at 9-10.

The Supreme Court has granted allocatur to the following issue, which rephrased for clarity, is:

Whether the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (“PHRA”), including its requirement for exhaustion of remedial administrative procedures, provides the exclusive remedy for retaliation claims ostensibly brought under the Pennsylvania Whistleblower Law (“Whistleblower Law”), where the underlying basis for a Whistleblower Law retaliation claim is discrimination deemed to be unlawful under the PHRA.

Allocatur grants present an excellent opportunity for your group or association to advance your legal and policy goals by filing an amicus brief. Participating as an amicus has proven to be an effective method of advising and influencing courts and often can involve far fewer resources than traditional lobbying.

If you are interested or would like more information, contact Kevin McKeon or Dennis Whitaker.