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Salsberg v. Mann, 2024 Pa. LEXIS 233, 2024 WL 696428 (February 21, 2024) (Brobson, J.).

This discretionary matter concerns a claim brought by Cara Salsberg (Salsberg), a former at-will employee of Drexel University (University), against her former supervisor, Donna Mann (Mann), asserting that Mann intentionally interfered with Salsberg’s contractual relationship with Drexel by taking actions that led to and included Salsberg’s firing. While recognizing that Pennsylvania law permits claims of intentional interference with the performance of contracts by third parties, the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County (trial court) and our Pennsylvania Superior Court concluded that Mann was nonetheless entitled to summary judgment because governing law further dictates that, in the context of an existing at-will employment relationship, an employee has no contractual or legally enforceable right to continued employment with which a third party can interfere. Upon review, we hold that the lower courts erred in reaching that conclusion. We further hold, however, that an at-will employee cannot recover on a claim for intentional interference with an existing at-will employment relationship against her supervisor under the circumstances of this case, where Mann was acting within the scope of her employment with Drexel and, thus, was not a third party to the relationship as required to establish the tort in Pennsylvania. Accordingly, we affirm the Superior Court’s judgment, albeit on alternative grounds.

There is a dearth of case law from this Court explicitly addressing the precise scenario here—i.e., where an at-will employee claims that a supervisor intentionally interfered with the at-will employment relationship between the employee and employer—or the question of whether our common law recognizes such claims pursuant to Section 766 of the Restatement or otherwise. It appears that the only case from this Court that touches upon this discrete question is Menefee v. Columbia Broadcasting System, Inc., 458 Pa. 46, 329 A.2d 216 (Pa. 1974), where this Court summarily concluded that certain higher-level employees who had exercised an employer’s contract right to terminate an employee on thirteen weeks’ notice could not be found liable for conspiracy to interfere with an employee’s contractual relationship with the employer because they had a “privilege” to advise the employer on handling its employees and cause the termination of the employee. Menefee, 329 A.2d at 217, 221.

We granted discretionary review to resolve the following issue, as stated by Salsberg: “Whether Pennsylvania should apply [Section 766 of the Restatement] to an [i]ntentional [i]nterference claim by an employee at will against a supervisor who acted against that employee, not as an agent on behalf of her employer, but ultra vires and pursuant to personal animus?” Salsberg v. Mann, 275 A.3d 964 (Pa. 2022) (per curiam). This issue comes to this Court by way of an order granting summary judgment and implicates a question of law. Accordingly, “our standard of review is de novo, and our scope of review is plenary.” Gallagher v. GEICO Indem. Co., 650 Pa. 600, 201 A.3d 131, 137 (Pa. 2019); Khalil v. Williams, 278 A.3d 859, 871 (Pa. 2022).

Upon review of the circumstances of Salsberg’s termination in the light most favorable to Salsberg, we conclude that there is no genuine issue of material fact as to whether Mann acted outside the scope of her authority such that Mann can be considered a third party that is liable for intentionally interfering with Salsberg’s at-will employment relationship with Drexel. As an initial matter, there is no dispute that Mann’s conduct at all relevant times fell within authorized time and space limits and that this matter does not involve any use of force. See Section 228(1)(b), (d) of Restatement (Second) of Agency. Moreover, Mann’s conduct was clearly “of the kind [she wa]s employed to perform” in supervising Salsberg (i.e., directing Salsberg’s work and schedule, evaluating Salsberg’s performance, and making recommendations as to Salsberg’s employment at Drexel). See Section 228(1)(a) of the Restatement (Second) of Agency. Finally, we conclude that there is no issue of genuine material fact that Mann’s actions were “actuated, at least in part, by a purpose to serve” Drexel. Section 228(1)(c) of the Restatement (Agency). While this issue appears to be the most contested by the parties, Salsberg admitted that she openly disagreed with Mann’s approach to handling the Tax Office’s increased workload and Salsberg’s schedule, by-passed Mann by raising the issue at a meeting with Mann’s own supervisor even though Salsberg knew the meeting would anger Mann, and stated that Mann had mental health issues during that meeting. Salsberg also does not dispute that Mann was displeased with the amount of hours that Salsberg was working and Salsberg’s attitude and performance as a manager, including as it related to admitted errors in Salsberg’s work. As noted in Geary, decided in the wrongful discharge context but under similar circumstances, an employer has a legitimate interest in “preserv[ing] administrative order in its own house” irrespective of whether the employee’s “intentions were good,” and an employer can fire an at-will employee to advance that interest subject to limitations not at issue here. Geary, 319 A.2d at 178-79. Thus, even accepting that the additional hours were unnecessary, the expectations were not clear, Salsberg “did her best” with her work, Salsberg met with Rusenko for the benefit of herself and Mann, and Mann acted for personal retaliatory reasons in effectuating Salsberg’s firing, there is no genuine dispute that Salsberg was terminated at least in part for a purpose to serve Drexel. See, e.g., Gruhlke, 756 N.W.2d at 409-10 (rejecting claim that plaintiff sufficiently alleged that defendant constituted third party by “act[ing] out of his personal interests when he advocated for the termination of [plaintiff’s] business relationship with [corporation]” because “corporate officers cannot be considered third parties to contracts between the corporate employer and another if the actions of the officers were even partially motivated to serve employer interests” and plaintiff failed to allege that defendant acted “solely” for personal interest); see also Reed, 506 N.W.2d at 232-33 (rejecting claim for intentional interference with economic relations against defendant serving as executive director and chief executive officer of girl scout council for failure to show defendant “was acting strictly for her own personal benefit when she allegedly persuaded the council not to sell [property] to plaintiffs[; a]lthough plaintiffs alleged that [defendant] personally disliked [one plaintiff] and was out to ‘punish’ him, these allegations stem[med] from a prior real estate transaction in which [that plaintiff] ultimately sued the council[ and, thus, the defendant’s] motives therefore [could] not be said to be strictly personal”). Indeed, in light of Geary, and in exercising the aforementioned judicial vigilance against attempts to circumvent our at-will employment doctrine, we view this case as such an attempt and reject it accordingly.

For the foregoing reasons, we hold that Pennsylvania does not categorically bar claims for intentional interference with an at-will employment contract or relationship by a third party. As such, we hold that the trial court and Superior Court erred to the extent that they reached the opposite conclusion, and we overrule the Superior Court’s decision in Hennessy and its progeny insomuch as they do the same. We further hold, however, that an employee cannot successfully assert this type of claim against a coworker unless the employee demonstrates, inter alia, that the coworker acted outside the scope of her authority under the circumstances of the particular case, thereby rendering the coworker a true third party, or stranger, to the at-will employment relationship. Finally, because Salsberg failed to establish a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Mann acted outside the scope of her authority such that Mann could be treated as a third party to Salsberg’s at-will employment relationship with Drexel, the courts below did not err in concluding that Mann was entitled to summary judgment on Salsberg’s claim. We, therefore, affirm the order of the Superior Court, although we do so on different grounds.

Justices Donohue, Dougherty and Wecht join the opinion.

Justice Wecht files a concurring opinion in which Justice Donohue joins.

Chief Justice Todd files a concurring and dissenting opinion.

Justice Mundy files a concurring and dissenting opinion.