PITTSBURGH — The Pennsylvania Superior Court has affirmed a lower court’s dismissal of a pilot's wrongful termination case. 

On April 24, the appellate court found that the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County was correct in dismissing Joseph Gross’s case against Nova Chemicals Services.

According to the court’s opinion, Gross had been employed by Nova from November 2004 until May 2014 as chief pilot. Because Nova’s aircraft required two pilots under Federal Aviation Administration rules, Gross worked alongside two other pilots, though as chief pilot, Gross retained primary responsibility for the plane’s operation.

“In or around January 2014, an employee of Nova began making frivolous and anonymous complaints against [Gross]. Nova investigated each complaint and found all to be without merit,” the court’s opinion reads. During a flight in March of that year, Gross’s co-pilot Gale Truitt revealed to the company’s vice president of human resources that he’d been the one making the complaints and asked why no action had been taken concerning them.

After this event, Gross spoke with Denise McBride, a human resources employee, to find out if any action would be taken, only to learn that “Nova feared an age discrimination suit if Nova took any action towards Mr. Truitt,” the opinion says.

As time went on, however, the situation grew more tense and “Mr. Truitt’s behavior towards [Gross] caused a breakdown in communication during flights. This breakdown in communication, because of Nova employee’s behavior, led [Gross] to become increasingly concerned for in-flight safety,” continues the opinion.

Gross again approached McBride with his concerns, and the two agreed that as a temporary solution, Gross would not fly with Truitt as his co-pilot. However, the pair were forced to fly together on April 7, 2014, during which Truitt refused to properly communicate with Gross.

Concerned for flight safety, Gross tried to get an update from McBride about the situation, and when none came, he approached his supervisor who allegedly responded, “I had hoped that if I ignored this issue long enough it would go away.”

Ultimately, says the opinion, “in his assessment as Chief Pilot, [Gross] determined that going forward he could no longer execute his duties under the FAA with the current conditions, as Nova continued to refuse to address the matter. In order to comply with his duties under the FAA, including to have the final authority over the operation of the aircraft, [Gross]’s employment wrongfully terminated on May 13, 2014.”

Approximately one year later, Gross filed a wrongful termination complaint against Nova, arguing that the company’s failure “to address communication issues led to unsafe flight conditions and rendered [him] unable to comply with his duties under the FAA to be the final authority on the aircraft.” 

He further claimed that Nova’s refusal to discuss the issue with Truitt because of their fear of sparking an age-based discrimination claim “amounted to disparate treatment that ‘contraven[ed] public policy legislation, on both a state and federal level, which prohibits an employer from treating an employee differently on the basis of age.’ This discriminatory action against [Gross], he claimed, further prevented him from performing his duty to be the final authority on the aircraft under the FAA undermining public safety concerns regarding in-flight safety.”

Wrongful termination claims by employees who have quit their jobs, however, can only be brought to Pennsylvania court “in the most limited of circumstances where the termination implicates a clear mandate of public policy in this Commonwealth,” reads the opinion, citing the 2000 case McLaughlin v. Gastrointestinal Specialists Inc.

Gross argued that by ignoring the issue between Gross and Truitt, Nova forced Gross to violate FAA regulations and he left in order to prevent this from occurring. However, says the decision, Gross “relied strictly on a federal statutory duty - FAA regulation … and in so doing failed to claim that public policy of Pennsylvania was at stake.”

Both the trial and appeals courts agreed that the FAA regulation was not reason enough to allow Gross to move forward with his claim. 

“We believe that it is a mistake to baldly point to a federal statute or administrative regulation and, without more, proclaim this as the public policy of the Commonwealth, such that every violation of any federal code, or statute becomes the basis for seeking a common law remedy against an employer,” says the appeals court’s opinion, quoting that of the trial court. 

“As our previous jurisprudence has shown, this Court has steadfastly resisted any attempt to weaken the presumption of at-will employment in this Commonwealth. … We hold that a bald reference to a violation of a federal regulation, without any more articulation of how the public policy of this Commonwealth is implicated, is insufficient to overcome the strong presumption in favor of the at-will employment relation.”

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