In Weaver v. Harpster, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that small employers (three or fewer employees) may not liable for acts of employment discrimination. Under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA), employers with four or more employees are prohibited from discriminating against their employees on the basis of sex. At common law, an employer may terminate an at-will employee for any reason unless that reason violates a clear mandate of public policy emanating from either the Pennsylvania Constitution or statutory pronouncements. In this case, the Court addressed the intersection of the PHRA and the public policy exception to at-will employment, namely, whether an employer with fewer than four employees, although not subject to the PHRA’s prohibition against sexual discrimination, nevertheless is prohibited from discriminating against an employee on the basis of sex. Because the PHRA reflects the unambiguous policy determination by the legislature that employers with fewer than four employees will not be liable for sex discrimination in Pennsylvania, the Court concluded that a common law claim for wrongful discharge, resulting from sex discrimination, will not lie against those employers.
The Court’s seven justice majority continued its support for the employment at-will presumption by declining to recognize an additional public policy exception based on Pennsylvania’s statutes or Constitutional protections. The two justice dissent would have found a public policy exception to the at-will employment presumption based on both the PHRA and Pennsylvania Constitution. Small employers should keep in mind that they escape coverage of the PHRA, but may be covered by local ordinances prohibiting employment discrimination.