Pennsylvania pharmacist’s age discrimination suit fails

A federal age discrimination case in Pennsylvania illustrates the concept of at-will employment.

In February 2015, a federal judge in Pennsylvania granted Walgreens' motion for summary judgment in an age discrimination lawsuit by a pharmacist who had been terminated from employment. The court found that the employer's basis for firing the plaintiff was not illegal discrimination based on age, but instead was for refusing to "perform an essential part of his job" because of a moral objection.

The pharmacist had refused to perform immunizations based on a moral concern about giving immunizations to customers as part of his job. He allegedly had observed the death of a friend from Guillain-Barre Syndrome that had developed after receiving a flu shot. According to Mayo Clinic, this rare disease causes paralysis after the body's immune system attacks its nervous system. The plaintiff was worried about exposing customers to this potential danger through immunization.

After the plaintiff had been in his pharmacist job for some time, Walgreens decided to require all pharmacists to perform immunizations for customers and the plaintiff was eventually terminated for his refusal to immunize. The employer alleged that he was the only pharmacist in the state of Pennsylvania who would not perform this task on the job.

The pharmacist claimed that his employer had fired him for illegal discrimination based on age, noting that younger pharmacists who had not yet become certified to give the shots were still allowed to work regular shifts, whereas the plaintiff had been offered a less desirable, unsalaried, intermittent schedule.

While the court found that the plaintiff had proven the elements of age discrimination required when there is no direct evidence of discrimination, thereby creating a presumption of unlawful discrimination, the employer was able to show a "legitimate business explanation" to rebut the presumption.

Here, that legal reason for termination was that the plaintiff refused to administer immunizations, a job requirement. The court further found that the pharmacist could not prove that this reason was a "pretext" for underlying discrimination, nor was age, even if some part of the decision to let him go, a "determinative influence on the outcome."

This lawsuit illustrates an important legal aspect of the employer-employee relationship in Pennsylvania. A job that is not governed by an employment contract (that controls the terms of employment by private agreement) is considered at-will employment. An employer can terminate an at-will employee for any reason or for no reason, so long as the reason is not illegal. For example, an employee may not be fired based on illegal discrimination like that based on age, gender, race, religion and so on; in violation of Pennsylvania public policy; or for any other unlawful reason.

In the case of the pharmacist, his fear of harming a customer through an immunization was not a legally protected characteristic and he could be fired for not performing a job duty for that reason.

This case illustrates the complexity of employment law and the need for an experienced and knowledgeable attorney to provide guidance and advice to an employee who believes that he or she may have been treated negatively at work for an illegal reason such as discrimination based on a protected characteristic. Any Pennsylvania employee with such concerns should seek legal counsel immediately so as not to miss any deadlines and to preserve potential legal remedies.

From their offices in Pittsburgh, the employment attorneys at Logan & Logan advocate vigorously for employee-clients and for small business clients, in matters of alleged discrimination, breach of contract, wrongful termination, and other employment-related issues.

Keywords: age discrimination, case, Pennsylvania, at-will employment, pharmacist, Walgreens, essential, moral objection, immunization, termination, presumption, legitimate business explanation, job requirement, pretext, lawsuit, employer, employee, employment contract, reason, protected characteristic, attorney