PHILADELPHIA – A healthcare lab quality manager’s wrongful termination lawsuit will not be remanded to the Lehigh County Court of Common Pleas, per a federal court’s decision reached Monday.

On Jan. 9, U.S. District Court Judge Jeffrey L. Schmehl ruled not to return the case filed by plaintiff Karen Harrison against defendants Health Network Laboratories L.P. and Lehigh Valley Health Network, Inc. to state court, as it contains claims relating to federal jurisdiction.

The action was originally filed by in state court Lehigh County, then removed by defendants to federal court on the basis of federal question jurisdiction. In the one-count complaint, Harrison alleges the defendants retaliated against her by terminating her employment in violation of the Pennsylvania Whistleblower Law, 43 P.S. 1423(a).

Harrison claims she worked for defendant Health Network Laboratories Limited Partnership (HNLLP) from Oct. 1, 1998 until her termination on Nov. 19, 2015, and since 2012, in the role of a Quality Manager. In that role, Harrison claims her job duties included, inter alia, “interfacing with co-workers to ensure they were performing in a satisfactory and safe work environment.”

In March 2015, Harrison says she received a complaint from co-worker Elizabeth Corkery, an employee in HNLLP’s IT Department. The complaint described “abusive, discriminatory and harassing conduct” by Corkery’s supervisor, Arun Bhaskar, the director of the IT Department and a gentleman of “Indian heritage.”

Harrison alleges that Bhaskar made “abusive, discriminatory, threatening” comments to Corkery, subjected her to an intensely hostile working environment, and discriminated against employees who were not of Indian heritage, while further alleging Bhaskar’s conduct was known to and approved by his supervisor, Harvey Guindi.

Harrison says she reported her concerns to HNLLP’s Chief Operating Officer, Elizabeth Rokus, though plaintiff did not identify Bhaskar, Guindi or Corkery by name at that time. Harrison claims she asked Rokus to appoint an Ombudsman to address Corkery’s complaints, but Rokus refused. After the abusive and discriminatory conduct of Bhaskar continued, Corkery finally resigned on Oct. 1, 2015. On that date, Bhaskar allegedly declared publicly that “Corkery’s replacement would be superior because he is of Indian heritage.”

Harrison alleges on Oct. 15, 2015, Corkery described in writing the abusive and discriminatory conduct of Bhaskar, and forwarded a copy to both Harrison and a Human Resources Generalist. On Oct. 19, 2015, Harrison shared the letter with HNLLP’s Vice-President of Clinical Operations and Director of Quality Services. One month later, Harrison was terminated under the pretext of supposedly using foul language at an after-hours work banquet.

“Plaintiff alleges that Bhaskar’s allegedly discriminatory and harassing conduct constitutes ‘wrongdoing’ under the Whistleblower Law because it violates state and federal statutes, namely Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA), and ‘various other federal and state laws,” Schmehl said.

“Plaintiff argues that the case must be remanded to state court because there is no diversity of citizenship among the parties and the complaint only raises a question of state law, i.e., a violation of the Pennsylvania Whistleblower Act. Defendants respond that embedded in plaintiff’s Whistleblower Act claim is a claim for violation of Title VII and, as a result, plaintiff’s complaint does raise a substantial and actual federal question. The Court agrees with defendants,” Schmehl said.

Schmehl outlined according to the Supreme Court, “an embedded federal issue only justifies the exercise of subject matter jurisdiction when: (1) The state law claim necessarily raises a stated federal issue, (2) The federal issue is substantial and in actual dispute, and (3) The exercise of federal jurisdiction will not disturb “any congressionally approved balance of federal and state judicial responsibilities.”

“With respect to the first two elements of this inquiry, it is clear that plaintiff’s state law claim necessarily raises a federal issue that is both actually disputed and substantial,” Schmehl said. “To establish a prima facie case under Pennsylvania’s Whistleblower Law, plaintiff must show: (1) That she made a good faith report of ‘wrongdoing’ or ‘waste’ and (2) A causal connection between that report and the termination of her employment. Although plaintiff does not claim that she made a report of ‘waste,’ she does claim that she made good faith reports of ‘wrongdoing’ to management during the course of her employment with HNL,” Schmehl said.

“Plaintiff alleges that the conduct she reported to HNLLP – Bhaksar’s allegedly discriminatory and harassing conduct toward Corkery – constitutes “wrongdoing” under the Whistleblower Law because it violates Title VII, the PHRA, and “various other federal and state laws,” Schmehl continued.

Schmehl pointed out Harrison’s Whistleblower Law claim necessarily raises a federal issue, i.e., whether Bhaskar’s supposed conduct, which served as the basis for plaintiff’s alleged good faith report of “wrongdoing,” violates Title VII or “various other federal…laws.” If it did not, the plaintiff cannot prevail on her claim, as “Pennsylvania courts interpret Title VII and the PHRA as coextensive.”

“Finally, the Court’s exercise of jurisdiction over plaintiff’s claim will not disturb the congressionally approved balance of federal and state judicial responsibilities. Here, there is no disruptive portent in this Court exercising federal jurisdiction. In the first instance, federal courts routinely address claims brought under Title VII,” Schmehl said.

“In the second instance, this Court’s exercise of federal jurisdiction under the facts of this particular Whistleblower Act case will not upset the balance of federal and state responsibilities, because the vast majority of Whistleblower cases will still be decided in state court. Only where, as here, an actually disputed substantial federal issue is embedded in plaintiff’s claim under the Pennsylvania Whistleblower Act, will federal jurisdiction be appropriate,” Schmehl added.

“In sum, this Court has subject matter jurisdiction over the state law cause of action raised in the Complaint because the claim necessarily raises a stated federal issue, actually disputed and substantial, which the Court may entertain without disturbing any congressionally approved balance of federal and state judicial responsibilities,” Schmehl concluded.

The plaintiff is represented by Robert Eric Hall of the Law Offices of R. Eric Hall in Macungie and Michael J. Piosa of Piosa Law, in Allentown.

The defendants are represented by Steven E. Hoffman and George C. Hlavac of Norris McLaughlin & Marcus, in Allentown.

U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania case 5:16-cv-03530

From the Pennsylvania Record: Reach Courts Reporter Nicholas Malfitano at nickpennrecord@gmail.com

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