In a recent opinion, the Pennsylvania Superior Court upheld a judgment in favor of a healthcare employee that alleged wrongful termination of employment following her repeated refusal to work mandatory overtime. The judgment included damages of $121,869.93 and an order reinstating the employee to her former position. The Court’s opinion focused on the question of whether an employer’s violation of Act 102 can form the basis of a wrongful termination action. The Court answered that question affirmatively in the case of Roman v. McGuire Memorial.

Pennsylvania’s Act 102, the Prohibition of Excessive Overtime in Healthcare Act, generally provides that a covered health care facility may not require an employee to work in excess of a predetermined and regularly scheduled work shift. This prohibition is aimed at limiting situations where employees of covered health care facilities are “mandated” to work overtime with little or no advance notice. Health care facilities covered by Act 102 include most hospitals and long-term care facilities.

In this case, the employee alleged that she was terminated after her fourth refusal to work overtime mandated by her employer, a covered healthcare facility. The employer had a policy in place requiring direct care workers to work mandatory overtime. The employee claimed that she informed her employer that she could not accept mandatory overtime due to child care responsibilities. She also claimed that she informed her employer that the policy of mandating overtime was in violation of Act 102. After she was terminated, the employee filed a lawsuit claiming wrongful termination in violation of Act 102’s prohibition on mandatory overtime.

Although Act 102 generally prohibits retaliation against an employee for refusal to accept overtime mandated in violation of it, the law does not provide for a specific right to file a lawsuit. Instead, Act 102 contemplates administrative penalties to be enforced by the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry.

The employer argued that because the statute had defined how the act would be enforced it could not also form the basis of  a private cause of action for wrongful termination. The Pennsylvania Superior disagreed, holding instead that Act 102 could form the basis of a wrongful termination claim because it did not specifically provide for an exclusive remedy.

At the core of the Court’s decision is the ever evolving concept of at-will employment and the recognized exceptions to it. Although an employee at-will, the employee successfully argued that her termination was wrongful because it violated a clear public policy of the Commonwealth prohibiting excessive mandatory overtime as set forth in Act 102. Pennsylvania employers should recognize that while the doctrine of “at-will” employment is still alive and well, the exceptions to it are many and growing. Termination of an employee that asserts a right protected by law is often enough to support a claim of wrongful termination.