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The office manager of a Philadelphia law firm who was allegedly fired for serving jury duty can challenge her termination under state law even though the firm she worked for employed fewer than 15 people, a trial judge ruled Monday in an apparent case of first impression. Senior Judge Barry F. Feudale of Northumberland County, visiting judge in the Philadelphia Common Pleas case, denied the law firm’s motion for summary judgment in Sheeran v. Kubert Himmelstein & Associates. Feudale said the firm’s argument that state law exempts retail and service industry employers with fewer than 15 staff members from holding jurors’ places was “absurd and unreasonable.” The “mischief” created by such an interpretation would be discriminatory, contrary to the legal exemptions for jury duty and would upset the intent of state public policy on the issue, the judge explained. The suggested interpretation would also allow too many people to avoid jury service, Feudale wrote, saying it would stir an “administrative nightmare for judges and jury administrators who are struggling with the problem of encouraging more people to serve on juries at a time when recent studies show a reluctance to serve on jury duty, leading to a crisis in several jurisdictions.” State law exempts smaller businesses those service-industry employers with fewer than 15 employees and manufacturers with fewer than 40 from the criminal summary offense and civil penalties in cases involving claims of wrongful termination of jurors, Feudale said. It does not eliminate an employee’s right to bring those wrongful discharge claims against any employer, the judge added. Feudale noted that in his home county, employees working for businesses with fewer than 15 workers comprise the majority of the county’s workforce, so most of the county’s residents would be eligible to opt out of jury duty. In April 2001, Julia Sheeran served as a juror in a criminal trial that lasted two to three days and ended in a mistrial, said her attorney, Sidney L. Gold. Sheeran told the judge presiding over the trial for which she was a jury member that she was worried her boss at the law firm Kubert Himmelstein & Associates would fire her for missing work, Gold said. “He claimed he couldn’t not have her there,” Gold said. “He was the typical employer that doesn’t want to have an employee absent from work.” But Sheeran felt she had a civil obligation to serve and she went, Gold said. Soon after, Sheeran was fired from her job as office manager of the firm, where she had worked for more than 20 years, according to the opinion. Months later, Sheeran filed a wrongful termination suit, citing a 1978 Superior Court decision, Reuther v. Fowler & Williams, which held that an employer who fires an employee for serving jury duty violates public policy and the employee can claim wrongful discharge, according to the opinion. Attorneys for the defendant law firm argued that Reuther was based on a public policy exception to the at-will employment doctrine, according to the opinion. They said the Legislature did not intend to punish service-industry employers with fewer than 15 staff members for firing an employee for serving on a jury, and it recognized the hardship small service-industry endure employers when losing one of their employees to jury duty, according to the opinion. Counsel for the defendants, Gilbert B. Abramson, was not available for comment yesterday. Sheeran’s attorneys countered that the Legislature had not intended to eliminate employees’ right to bring a claim for wrongful discharge, but instead meant to shield small-business employers from paying the criminal and attorney fees in wrongful termination cases that larger employers are required to pay under the law, according to the opinion. Fuedal agreed. “A contrary ruling would have frustrated the whole system of jury service,” Gold said Tuesday. Last year, attorneys for the defendants filed a motion for a change of venue or for the court to appoint an out of county judge because of conflicting interests among the plaintiff and several members of the Court of Common Pleas, Gold said. Sheeran’s father is Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Anthony J. DeFino, and her sister is Judge Rose Marie DeFino-Nastasi. Also, Common Pleas Judge John J. Chiovero presided over the criminal trial in which Sheeran sat as a juror and would probably be called as a witness in Sheeran’s wrongful termination case, Gold said. For this reason, Senior Judge Feudale was appointed as visiting judge in Sheeran, Gold said.

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