Justia Labor & Employment Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

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The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit certified a question of law to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Plaintiffs William DeForte and Evan Townsend were employed as police officers with the Borough of Worthington (the “Borough”). Neither officer was salaried or received benefits. Instead, they were paid hourly wages and, moreover, were simultaneously employed by other police forces. The Borough’s police force consisted of four part-time officers, including Plaintiffs. On November 5, 2012, the Borough terminated Plaintiffs’ employment without affording any process. Plaintiffs brought separate actions (which were consolidated) against the Borough at the federal district court. Plaintiffs asserted, inter alia, that the Borough Code or the Tenure Act conferred a constitutionally-protected property interest in their continued employment, and the lack of any process associated with their dismissal violated their federal due process rights. They requested relief under Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871. The Borough moved for summary judgment. In ruling on the motion, the district court considered whether Plaintiffs were entitled to civil-service protections in connection with their dismissal under either the Police Tenure Act, or the Borough Code, The Supreme Court, answering the two-part question forwarded by the Third Circuit: (1) the civil service protections embodied in the Borough Code and the Tenure Act were broadly in pari materia insofar as they were intended to govern all borough police forces; and (2) when calculating the size of a borough police force in any given case, the same test should be used. More particularly, the “normal working hours” criterion contained in the Borough Code should be employed to determine how many members a borough police force has for purposes of deciding whether the Tenure Act’s two-officer maximum or the Borough Code’s three-officer minimum was implicated. View "Deforte v. Boro of Worthington" on Justia Law

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In this case, the issue presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's review was whether the Commonwealth Court disregarded the law when it vacated a grievance arbitration award based on its independent interpretation of the parties’ collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”). Millcreek Township Educational Support Personnel Association (the “Association”) and Millcreek Township School District (the “District”) were parties to a CBA that became effective on July 1, 2011, and was set to expire on June 30, 2016. Negotiations for a successor CBA began January 26, 2016 when the Association offered its initial proposal to the District. Approximately one month later, the District presented a counter proposal in which it sought, among other items, to eliminate a no subcontracting provision. The Association rejected this proposal. On March 29, 2016, with successor CBA negotiations ongoing between the Association and the District, the District issued a request for proposals (“RFP”) seeking quotes from prospective bidders for the provision of custodial labor services. On April 7, 2016, upon learning that the District had issued an RFP to subcontract the bargaining unit’s work, the Association filed a grievance with the District. Pursuant to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decisions under the Public Employee Relations Act (“PERA”), a reviewing court had to apply the highly deferential two-prong “essence test” to grievance arbitration awards: (1) the court had to decide whether the issue was encompassed by the CBA; and (2) the court had to uphold the arbitrator’s award if the arbitrator’s interpretation could rationally be derived from the CBA. Subject to a narrow exception for awards that violate a dominant public policy, proper application of the essence test prohibits a court from vacating an arbitrator’s award unless “the award indisputably and genuinely is without foundation in, or fails to logically flow from, the [CBA].” The Supreme Court had "no trouble" concluding that the award in this case drew its essence from the CBA and because no public policy would be violated by its enforcement, it reversed the decision of the Commonwealth Court. View "Millcreek Twp SD v. Millcreek Twp ESPA" on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted allowance of appeal to consider whether Section 614 of Municipalities Planning Code, 53 P.S. section 10614, which set forth the powers of a zoning officer, provided sufficient basis to determine, absent evidence of actual job duties, if a zoning officer was a management-level employee under the Public Employe Relations Act (PERA). Because the Supreme Court held that Section 614 did not render a zoning officer a management-level employee, the Court held that such evidence was required, and therefore reversed the order of the Commonwealth Court. View "Exeter Twp. v. PLRB, Teamsters Local Union" on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted discretionary review to determine whether the Commonwealth Court erred in holding appellant Daniel Harmon was disqualified from receiving unemployment compensation benefits pursuant to Section 402.6 of the Unemployment Compensation Law. Appellant was a part-time employee at Brown’s Shop Rite beginning February 14, 2013. By December, he was convicted of driving with a suspended license and sentenced to a term of 60 days’ imprisonment to be served on 30 consecutive weekends, beginning March 14, 2014 and ending August 7, 2014. Appellant’s employment with Brown’s Shop Rite was terminated on March 24, 2014 due to a violation of company policy, which was unrelated to his incarceration. He then filed for benefits and received them for the week ending March 29, 2014 through the week ending July 26, 2014. This period included weeks when appellant was serving his sentence of weekend incarceration. The Supreme Court held appellant was not disqualified from receiving unemployment compensation benefits, and therefore reversed the order of the Commonwealth Court. View "Harmon v. UCBR" on Justia Law

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In 2003, the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development (“DCED”) designated the City of Pittsburgh as a financially distressed municipality under the Municipal Financial Recovery Act (“Act 47”). The City’s collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”) with Appellant Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1 (the “Union”) expired on December 31, 2014. As the parties were unable to reach consensus on a new CBA, they entered into interest arbitration governed by the Policemen and Firemen Collective Bargaining Act (“Act 111”). After an evidentiary hearing encompassing ten days of testimony before an Act 111 arbitration panel, the panel issued a final award covering years 2015-2018. The Award contained numbered factual findings one of which included a list of itemized findings relating to the City’s population, income, housing vacancy rate, and, most relevantly, the City’s police officer compensation as measured against other economically and demographically comparable subdivisions. The Union’s financial expert had testified in a prior matter in 2014 that the City’s police pay was above the median of a comparison group; the City’s police officers paid substantially lower contributions toward health insurance than other City employees for the same coverage level; and the Union’s own financial expert believed City police officers were paid competitively. The Union filed an appeal in the Commonwealth Court, contending that the Award deviated from the Plan by failing to ensure competitive compensation for police officers as required by the Plan. The Union argued that the court had jurisdiction to rule on its appeal per Section 252(e) of Act 47. Te Pennsylvania Supreme Court determined the Commonwealth Court properly held that the Union’s challenge to the Award fell outside the scope of Section 252(e). Accordingly, that court’s order quashing the parties’ appeals was affirmed. View "FOP Fort Pitt v. City of Pgh" on Justia Law

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This appeal presented an issue of whether a workers’ compensation insurance carrier could bring a third-party action against an alleged tortfeasor on behalf of an injured employee to recoup the amount paid in workers’ compensation benefits where the employee did not independently sue the tortfeasor, did not join in the insurer’s action, and did not assign her cause of action to the insurer. In 2013, Chunli Chen was standing in the parking lot of Thrifty Rental Car when she was struck by a rental vehicle operated by Kafumba Kamara. When the accident occurred, Chen was in the course of her employment with Reliance Sourcing, Inc., which maintained workers’ compensation coverage through The Hartford Insurance Group (“Appellee” or “Insurer”). Insurer had paid $59,424.71 in medical and wage benefits to Chen pursuant to her employer’s workers’ compensation insurance policy. Chen did not seek to recover damages for her injuries by filing an action against Kamara and/or Thrifty Rental Car (collectively referred to herein as “Appellants” or “Tortfeasors”) and did not assign her cause of action against Tortfeasors to Insurer. In 2015, when the two-year statute of limitations was about to expire on Chen’s cause of action, Insurer sought to effectuate its subrogation right under Section 319 of the Workers’ Compensation Act (“WCA”) by filing a praecipe for a writ of summons against Tortfeasors. “Reaffirming the well-settled proposition that the right of action against the tortfeasor remains in the injured employee,” the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that, unless the injured employee assigns her cause of action or voluntarily joins the litigation as a party plaintiff, the insurer may not enforce its statutory right to subrogation by filing an action directly against the tortfeasor. Accordingly, the Supreme Court vacated the Superior Court’s judgment and reinstated that of the trial court, which sustained the preliminary objections filed by the tortfeasor and dismissed the insurer’s complaint with prejudice. View "Hartford Ins. Grp. v. Kamara" on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted discretionary review in this matter to determine whether an employer has a legal duty to use reasonable care to safeguard its employees’ sensitive personal information that the employer stores on an internet-accessible computer system. Barbara Dittman, individually and on behalf of all others similarly situated (collectively, Employees), filed the operative class action complaint in this matter against UPMC d/b/a the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and UPMC McKeesport (collectively, UPMC), alleging that a data breach had occurred through which the personal and financial information, including names, birth dates, social security numbers, addresses, tax forms, and bank account information of all 62,000 UPMC employees and former employees was accessed and stolen from UPMC’s computer systems. Employees further alleged that the stolen data, which consisted of information UPMC required Employees to provide as a condition of their employment, was used to file fraudulent tax returns on behalf of the victimized Employees, resulting in actual damages. Employees asserted a negligence claim and breach of implied contract claim against UPMC. The Supreme Court held an employer has a legal duty to exercise reasonable care to safeguard its employees’ sensitive personal information stored by the employer on an internet- accessible computer system. Furthermore, the Court held that, under Pennsylvania’s economic loss doctrine, recovery for purely pecuniary damages is permissible under a negligence theory provided that the plaintiff can establish the defendant’s breach of a legal duty arising under common law that is independent of any duty assumed pursuant to contract. As the Superior Court came to the opposite conclusions, the Supreme Court vacated its judgment. View "Dittman v. UPMC" on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted discretionary review to address two issues associated with workers’ compensation claims by firefighters suffering from cancer. First, the Court had to determine the evidentiary requirements for a claimant to demonstrate that he or she has an “occupational disease,” as that term is defined in Section 108(r) of the Workers’ Compensation Act (the “Act”). Second, the Court had to decide whether epidemiological evidence may be used by an employer to rebut the evidentiary presumption that the claimant’s cancer is compensable as set forth in Section 301(f) of the Act. With respect to the first issue, the Supreme Court concluded that pursuant to Section 108(r), the claimant has an initial burden to establish that his or her cancer is a type of cancer that is capable of being caused by exposure to a known IARC Group 1 carcinogen. With respect to the second, the Court concluded that epidemiological evidence was not sufficient to rebut the evidentiary presumption under Section 301(f). View "City of Phila. FD v. WCAB; Appeal of: Sladek, S." on Justia Law

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Fu Xiang Lin began performing remodeling work for Eastern Taste, a restaurant that had not yet opened for business. Lin and three other individuals were hired by Lin’s sister-in-law, Sai Zheng Zheng, who was the owner of Eastern Taste. They did not sign a written contract, but Lin was to be paid for his services on a per diem basis. Lin had worked in remodeling for fifteen years, and he was the most experienced individual involved in the project. Although Wang purchased the materials necessary for the project, Lin brought and used his own tools. Lin was hired only to complete the remodeling work. While repairing a chimney, Lin fell from a beam and landed on a cement floor, suffering serious injuries. In addition to numerous bone fractures, the impact caused trauma to Lin’s spinal cord, rendering him paraplegic. Lin filed a workers’ compensation claim petition against Eastern Taste. Because Eastern Taste did not maintain workers’ compensation insurance, Lin additionally filed a petition for benefits from the Uninsured Employers Guaranty Fund (the “Fund”). Both Eastern Taste and the Fund filed answers denying, inter alia, the existence of an employment relationship. In this appeal, the issue before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was whether, pursuant to the Construction Workplace Misclassification Act (“CWMA” or “the Act”), Lin was eligible for compensation under the Workers’ Compensation Act. The Commonwealth Court determined that the CWMA was inapplicable under these circumstances, that the claimant otherwise failed to establish that he was an employee of the restaurant, and that he accordingly was ineligible for workers’ compensation benefits. Finding no error, the Supreme Court affirmed the order of the Commonwealth Court. View "Dept. of Labor & Industry v. Workers' Compensation Appeals Board" on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act (“WCA”) makes an employer liable for paying the disability benefits and medical expenses of an employee who sustains an injury in the course of his or her employment. In January 1993, Craig Whitmoyer suffered a work-related injury that resulted in the amputation of part of his arm. Starting at that time, his employer, Mountain Country Meats (“MCM”), or MCM’s insurance carrier, Selective Insurance (“Selective”), paid all of Whitmoyer’s medical expenses related to this injury. A few months later, the parties reached an agreement related to Whitmoyer’s disability benefits – he was entitled “to a 20 week healing period and 370 weeks of specific loss benefits [at $237.50 per week after May 22, 1993].” Whitmoyer subsequently petitioned for a commutation of these weekly payments. In December 1994, the Workers’ Compensation Judge (“WCJ”) granted his petition and directed MCM or Selective to pay Whitmoyer a lump sum payment of $69,994.64. While this commutation resolved his entitlement to disability benefits entirely, MCM remained responsible for Whitmoyer’s ongoing medical bills. Several years later, Whitmoyer obtained a $300,000 settlement from third parties related to his injury and, in April 1999, he entered a third-party settlement agreement (the “TPSA”) with Selective providing that as to past-paid compensation, Selective was entitled to a net subrogation lien of $81,627.87. Selective continued to pay Whitmoyer’s work-related medical expenses in full (without taking credit under the TPSA) for approximately thirteen years, until September 2012. At that time, Selective filed a modification petition requesting an adjustment to the TPSA to reflect the medical expenses incurred since the parties entered the agreement. The WCJ found, per the parties’ stipulation, that Selective had paid $206,670.88 for Whitmoyer’s work injury as of February 2013.The WCJ ordered that Selective’s percentage credit be reduced to 26.09% of future medical expenses, up to Whitmoyer’s balance of recovery amount of $189,416.27. Whitmoyer appealed to the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (the “Board”), arguing that the TPSA was unenforceable because neither he nor his counsel had signed it. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted allowance of appeal to determine whether the Commonwealth Court erred in concluding that the term “instalments of compensation” in section 319 of the WCA encompassed both disability benefits and payment of medical expenses. Under the WCA, disability benefits were required to be paid “in periodical installments, as the wages of the employee were payable before the injury.” Medical expenses are not. Accordingly, when a workers’ compensation claimant recovers proceeds from a third-party settlement (following repayment of compensation paid to date) as prescribed by section 319, the employer (or insurance carrier) is limited to drawing down against that recovery only to the extent that future disability benefits are payable to the claimant. The Supreme Court reversed the Commonwealth Court and remanded for further proceedings. View "Whitmoyer v. Workers' Compensation App. Bd." on Justia Law