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An employee must exhaust her administrative remedies before she can file suit under the Philadelphia Fair Practices Ordinance, the Commonwealth Court has ruled in an apparent case of first impression. The decision reverses a Philadelphia Common Pleas Court ruling. In Marriott Corp. v. Dea Alexander, the plaintiff was employed at a Marriott hotel as a front desk clerk. Alexander alleged that her supervisor sexually harassed and discriminated against her because she is female, according to the appeals court opinion. Alexander said that she complained about her supervisor’s behavior but that the sexual harassment continued, the opinion stated. Alexander was then sent home from work and was told that her complaints would be investigated. Soon after, she was informed that she had been terminated. Alexander then filed suit against Marriott in the court of common pleas, claiming that her supervisor sexually harassed her and that she was terminated because of her gender, in violation of the Philadelphia Fair Practices Ordinance, Section 9-1100. Alexander did not submit her complaint to the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations before filing her civil suit. Marriott then filed a motion for summary judgment, based on Alexander’s failure to exhaust administrative remedies. The trial court denied the request. In the appeal, Marriott argued that the trial court’s denial was in error. The Commonwealth Court panel of Judges Bonnie Brigance Leadbetter, Robert Simpson and Charles P. Mirarchi Jr. agreed. Simpson wrote the opinion. While Alexander conceded that she did not seek administrative remedies with the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission or the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, she argued that the Philadelphia ordinance, unlike the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, allows for the election of remedies. The Philadelphia ordinance, she also said, does not require the exhaustion of administrative remedies before a suit can be filed. Therefore, she argued, a distinction should be made between the Philadelphia ordinance and the Pennsylvania act. The Pennsylvania act was created in 1979 by the state Legislature to create a procedure and an agency designed to handle discrimination and to provide remedies to individuals subjected to discrimination. To help carry out that goal, the Legislature created the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission to enforce the Pennsylvania act. The commission would therefore be responsible for handling employment discrimination complaints. In Pennsylvania Human Relations Comm’n v. Alto-Reste Park Cemetery Ass., the state supreme court examined the Legislature’s intent in creating the commission and decided that the Legislature intended that administrative remedies be exhausted before a suit is filed. “Allowing a discharged employee to commence an action in the courts without first exhausting administrative remedies would be logically inconsistent with the Legislature’s having created the Pennsylvania commission to function as an efficient mechanism for handling such disputes,” the high court wrote. Allowing trial courts to handle such cases, the supreme court said, would be “burdensome, inefficient, time consuming and expensive,” and the Pennsylvania commission was designed to avoid those drawbacks. The Pennsylvania act also has the authority to grant local governments powers similar to those of the Pennsylvania commission. Pursuant to this authority, the Philadelphia commission was established to enforce anti-discrimination statutes such as the Philadelphia ordinance that prohibits employment discrimination based on, among other things, sex. In 1991, the Pennsylvania act was amended to allow the Pennsylvania commission to enter into work-sharing agreements with local agencies like that Philadelphia commission. Therefore, since 1991, filing a complaint with the Philadelphia commission means that a plaintiff must follow the regulations of the Pennsylvania act, including the requirement that he or she must exhaust all administrative remedies, according to the opinion. Finding no binding authority on the issue, the Commonwealth Court turned to a U.S. Eastern District decision, Richards v. Foulke Associates Inc., that held that an employee must exhaust administrative remedies before seeking judicial relief under the Philadelphia ordinance. The Commonwealth Court agreed with the Richards decision, holding that Alexander must exhaust her administrative remedies before filing an action under the Philadelphia ordinance. “In doing so, we seek uniformity in the procedures for resolving human relations complaints in Pennsylvania,” Simpson wrote. “We cannot condone a resort to court for human relation complaints in Philadelphia which is different from that afforded complaints elsewhere.”

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