Retaliatory discharge claim against Massachusetts drug co. can remain in Pa., judge rules

By Jon Campisi | Oct 12, 2012

A retaliatory discharge claim brought by a Pennsylvania woman against a Massachusetts-

based drug company over allegations that she was fired before she began full-time work because of her complaints of sexual harassment can move forward, a federal judge in Philadelphia has ruled.

Lauren Dattilo-Barker is suing Dartmouth Pharmaceuticals over claims that she was “abruptly” terminated after she lodged a complaint of sexual harassment stemming from harassment she claims to have received at the hands of the company’s president during a week-long training program in Massachusetts.

The defendant subsequently moved to dismiss the complaint on the grounds of improper venue and forum non conveniens, and also arguing that the suit should be tossed for failure to state a claim. On the latter, the company claims it is exempt from Title VII of the Civil Rights Act because it only has six employees; it claims the defendant and the plaintiff were not in an employment relationship at the time according to the terms of the contract; and the company asserts that the employment contract has a clause that states any disputes will be governed by the laws of Massachusetts.

In an Oct. 10 order, U.S. District Judge Mary A. McLaughlin, of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss, writing that venue in the federal court in Philadelphia is proper because Title VII has its own venue provision under which venue is proper in the judicial district in which the aggrieved person “would have worked but for the alleged unlawful employment practice.”

Essentially, while the plaintiff was undergoing training in Massachusetts, she would have worked for the company in Pennsylvania.

McLaughlin also wrote she wouldn’t dismiss Datillo-Barker’s complaint on the grounds of forum non conveniens, stating that the defendant bears the burden of proving that transfer is needed, which the drug company hasn’t done at this point.

“The private interest factors require the action to remain in this court,” McLaughlin wrote. “The plaintiff, a Pennsylvania resident, has chosen this forum in which to bring her action.”

McLaughlin said that although the claim arose in New England, the plaintiff lives and worked in Pennsylvania, and was terminated in Pennsylvania, meaning her claim can remain in the Keystone State.

On the forum non conveniens issue, McLaughlin also determined that it wouldn’t necessarily be inconvenient for the defendant to travel to Philadelphia during the course of litigation.

Lastly, McLaughlin concluded that it would be premature to decide the first two failure to state a claim arguments made by the defendant.

Facts are in dispute with respect to the issues of the number of employees who work for the defendant, and whether or not the plaintiff was considered a contract employee, the judge stated.

McLaughlin said the defendant can again raise this issue after discovery.

The case will proceed in Philadelphia.

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