ALLENTOWN – A healthcare lab quality manager’s wrongful termination lawsuit will in fact be remanded to the Lehigh County Court of Common Pleas, per a federal court’s decision reached last Friday.
On March 10, U.S. District Court Judge Jeffrey L. Schmehl ruled 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, pending the filing of an amended complaint within five days.
The action was originally filed in state court in 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.
Harrison believed the conduct in question is subject to the Whistleblower Law because it violated state and federal statutes, namely Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA) and “various other federal and state laws.”
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 “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.
On Jan. 9, Schmehl initially decided federal court should retain jurisdiction over the case due to the Title VII civil rights question therein, but Harrison filed a motion for reconsideration on Jan. 18.
In that motion, Harrison offered to dismiss her Title VII claim and any other federal claims, and proceed merely with a state law claim under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA) in an amended version of her complaint.
“Defendants first argue that plaintiff has unduly delayed moving to amend her complaint. According to defendants, plaintiff was on notice that her complaint contained an embedded federal claim when defendants filed their response to plaintiff’s motion to remand. The Court, however, does not fault plaintiff for pursuing a remand based on the allegations contained in the original complaint as the question of whether plaintiff alleged an embedded federal claim was not clear-cut,” Schmehl stated.
“Defendants also argue that any amendment would be futile because plaintiffs cannot state a claim under the Whistleblower Law. In doing so, defendants raise essentially the same arguments they raised in their motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. However, the Court already ruled that it needed to address the jurisdictional motion to remand before it addressed the merits of defendants’ motion to dismiss. The merits of plaintiff’s Whistleblower Law claim are better left to the state court,” Schmehl added.
In the end, Schmehl decided to grant Harrison’s reconsideration motion and remand the case to the Lehigh County Court of Common Pleas, after her amended version of the complaint was filed.
“Defendants do not meet any of the standards to support denial of plaintiff’s motion to amend. Accordingly, the court will grant the plaintiff’s motion to amend. After plaintiff files her amended complaint (with the proper heading) eliminating any direct federal or embedded federal claims, the Court will grant plaintiff’s outstanding motion for reconsideration and remand this matter to the Court of Common Pleas of Lehigh County,” Schmehl said.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org