|July 1, 2014|
Previously published on July 1, 2014
Lenora L. Lewis, Appellant, v. County of Butler, t/d/b/a/ Sunnyview Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, No. 1849 C.D. 201, Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, 2014 Pa. Commw. Unpub. LEXIS 295 (5/19/14)
The plaintiff worked for the county as a nurse’s aide for eight years, until she was terminated due to drug testing results. Prior to her discharge, the plaintiff had injured her neck and back at work while assisting a co-worker in lifting a 300-pound patient. Lewis filed a claim under the Workers’ Compensation Act and, thereafter, was asked to submit to a chemical test for controlled substances, even though she was not under suspicion of abusing narcotics or any other controlled substance and was not involved in any accident that would have justified post-accident testing pursuant to the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the county and her union.
The county terminated the plaintiff when the drug test came back positive for Oxazepam. The plaintiff claimed that she was terminated due to her pending workers’ compensation claim. She filed a complaint alleging wrongful discharge. In her complaint, she averred that the county acted in violation of public policy in terminating her because she filed a workers’ compensation claim, alleged damages from loss of income and benefits of employment, and requested punitive damages for willful disregard of her rights. In its preliminary objections, the county alleged that it is immune from suit under the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act (PSTCA). The trial court sustained the preliminary objections and dismissed Lewis’ complaint with prejudice.
Upholding the trial court’s dismissal of the complaint, the Commonwealth Court relied upon its earlier decision in McNichols v. Department of Transportation, 804 A.2d 1264 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2002) interpreting a Commonwealth agency’s liability under Pennsylvania’s Sovereign Immunity Act. In McNichols, the court determined that PennDOT could not be liable to one of its employees for wrongful discharge. Similar to its reasoning in McNichols, the court noted that Section 8541 of the PSTCA provides that “[e]xcept as otherwise provided in this subchapter, no local agency shall be liable for any damages on account of any injury to a person or property caused by any act of the local agency or an employee thereof or any other person.” 42 Pa. C.S. §8541. While there are eight exceptions to local agency immunity under section 8542(b) of the PSTCA, 42 Pa. C.S. §8542(b), a claim for wrongful discharge is not a listed exception.