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As a general rule, unless a binding employment contract exists, employment in Pennsylvania is presumed to be “at-will” and may be terminated by either the employer or the employee at any time and for any reason, so long as it does not violate applicable law. 

An at-will employee who is fired from his/her job may sue their former employer successfully only in very limited circumstances.  Whether a lawsuit can be brought depends on the reason for the discharge.  If you are fired for a reason which the law finds to be against "public policy," you might be able to pursue a successful action.  Examples of terminations which Pennsylvania courts have found to violate “public policy” include being fired because you missed work as a result of jury duty, because you filed a claim for workers’ compensation benefits or because you reported illegal actions on the part of the employer.  Such circumstances are relatively rare.

In most cases, the promises found in employee handbooks and similar workplace policies about how discharges will be handled are not considered by the law to be contractual promises and the employer is free to deviate from those procedures even though they are in writing.  In rare cases, an employee handbook or policy may be considered a contract for employment if an employee has good reason to believe that it was actually intended to be binding.

There are separate state and federal laws protecting employees from being discharged where race, age, sex, religion, national origin, or disability/handicap are part of the reason for the employer's action.  Depending on the location, there also may be applicable local laws which prohibit employers from basing employment decisions on these or other protected characteristics, such as sexual orientation and gender identity.  Other laws make it unlawful to fire a worker because he/she has engaged in union activity, made complaints to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or refused to take a lie detector test.  Pursuing rights under any of these laws would require specific evidence of the alleged reason for termination.  Time limits for filing a claim can be as short as six months or as long as several years.  An employee who believes he/she may have a claim should promptly consult with an attorney knowledgeable in this area.


If you need an attorney and don't have one, the Lawyer Referral and Information Service can help.

Call Us Monday - Friday from 8:30 AM - Noon and 1:15 PM - 3:00 PM at (814) 459-4411.