Summary Judgment Denied Because Of Employer’s Contradicting Reasons For Termination (PA)

In Eastman v. ReSearch Pharmaceuticals, the plaintiff’s employer gave conflicting reasons for firing her.  Although both reasons offered were legitimate bases for termination, the court denied the defendant’s motion for summary judgment because of the contradictions. 

Eastman was a clinical researcher for ReSearch Pharmaceuticals and part of her responsibilities included traveling to various locations to monitor drug trials.  Prior to one of her scheduled visits to a doctor’s office, Eastman was experiencing back pain.  She called her manager and asked for permission to reschedule the visit; however, the manager stated that the visit could not be rescheduled, but offered instead to send another employee.  Eastman declined and agreed to go herself.  When she arrived at the doctor’s office, he observed that Eastman seemed to be suffering from a physical ailment.  The doctor offered to examine her and eventually gave Eastman Valium without a prescription.  Later that evening, Eastman took the Valium and called her manager to discuss the visit, including the fact that she had taken the Valium that the doctor offered. 

Following the call, Eastman’s manager discussed the incident with human resources.  Subsequently, the executive director of human resources spoke with Eastman and ultimately fired her for violating the company’s drug policy, by taking a controlled substance without a prescription.  In response, Eastman filed suit for wrongful termination. 

During the course of discovery, it was revealed that ReSearch offered inconsistent reasons for firing Eastman.  The vice president of human resources stated that Eastman was not fired for violating the company’s drug policy but for unprofessional behavior.  Additionally, the executive director of human resources, who previously stated that Eastman was fired because of the company’s drug policy, now claimed that she was fired because of unprofessional behavior.  However, during his deposition, the executive director testified that Eastman was fired because she violated the company’s drug policy.   

Subsequently, ReSearch moved for summary judgment and ultimately, the court denied the motion.  Although ReSearch could have terminated Eastman for either her violation of the company’s drug policy or unprofessional behavior and likely both would have constituted legitimate reasons for termination (and would have been sufficient to grant summary judgment), since ReSearch was never clear as to why Eastman was fired and continually vacillated between the two reasons, the court determined that there was a genuine issue of fact and, thus, denied the motion.

Special thanks to Colleen Hayes for her contributions to this post.  For more information, please contact Nicole Y. Brown at nbrown@wcmlaw.com.