On December 17, 2021, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) ruled that an employee discharged for submitting a written rebuttal to his employer in response to the placement of negative information in his personnel file can state a claim against the employer for wrongful termination in violation of public policy.
In Meehan v. Medical Information Technology, Inc., No. SJC-13117, 2021 WL 5990887 (Mass. December 17, 2021), the Commonwealth’s highest court reversed a trial court’s determination (which an intermediate appellate court had upheld) that although the plaintiff-employee had a statutory right to submit a rebuttal, his right to do so “was ‘not a sufficiently important public policy’ to support” a wrongful termination claim. The court held that an employer that discharges an employee simply for exercising that right violates the public policy exception to the at-will employment doctrine. The decision clarifies that an employment right guaranteed by statute need not be “important” to qualify for protection, and that employers may want to be particularly cautious when deciding whether to discharge employees who arguably have exercised such rights.
The Personnel Records Statute
The Massachusetts legislature has enacted a personnel records statute (Mass. G.L. c. 149, § 52C) that requires employers to “notify an employee within [ten] days of the employer placing in the employee’s personnel record any information … that … negatively affect[s] the employee’s qualification for employment, promotion, transfer, additional compensation or the possibility that the employee will be subject to disciplinary action.” The statute further provides that if the employee disagrees “with any information contained in a personnel record,” and if the employer and employee do not “mutually agree” to remove that information from the file or correct it, “the employee may submit a written statement explaining the employee’s position which shall thereupon be contained therein and shall become a part of such employee’s personnel record.” The statute’s requirements are enforceable only by the Commonwealth’s attorney general—i.e., an employee cannot bring a lawsuit against an employer for failure to comply with the statute—and violations are punishable “by a fine of not less than [$500] nor more than [$2,500].”
Massachusetts courts have long recognized a public policy exception to the general rule that the relationship between an employer and employee is “at will” and thus may be terminated by either party for any reason or for no reason. Under that exception—which the courts have emphasized must be “narrowly construed to avoid converting the general at-will rule into ‘a rule that requires just cause’” for termination—an at-will employee may not be discharged (1) “for asserting a legally guaranteed right (e.g., filing a workers’ compensation claim),” (2) “for doing what the law requires (e.g., serving on a jury),” (3) “for refusing to do what the law forbids (e.g., committing perjury),” or (4) for ‘“performing important public deeds even though the law does not absolutely require” their performance, such as “cooperating with an ongoing criminal investigation.” (Emphasis in original.)
An employee who is discharged for engaging in conduct that falls into one or more of the four categories above can assert a common law tort claim against the employer for wrongful termination in violation of public policy, unless the statute that gives rise to the public policy at issue already provides a remedy (a) to employees discharged in violation of it; or (b) for violation of the statute that is not a remedy for discharge, but that “is meant to be comprehensive.”
The Lower Courts’ Rulings
The plaintiff in the Meehan case, Terence Meehan, began working for Medical Information Technology, Inc. (Meditech) as a sales representative in November 2010. In early July 2018, Meditech placed Meehan and two other salespeople on performance improvement plans (PIPs). Shortly thereafter—on July 17, 2018—“Meehan sent his supervisor a lengthy rebuttal” to the PIP that Meditech had issued to him. That same day, according to Meehan’s complaint, the president and chief executive officer of Meditech decided to terminate Meehan’s employment, and he was discharged immediately thereafter.
Meehan filed a one-count complaint in the trial court alleging that Meditech had fired him for submitting a rebuttal to the PIP, and asserting a claim against Meditech for wrongful termination in violation of public policy. Meditech filed a motion to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim on which relief could be granted, and the trial court judge allowed the motion, holding that an employee’s “right to submit a rebuttal” under the personnel records statute “was ‘not a sufficiently important public policy’ to support a wrongful termination claim under Massachusetts law. In reaching that conclusion, the judge reasoned that the rebuttal right “merely ‘involves matters internal to an employer’s operation,’” and that a rule protecting any employee who submits a rebuttal to negative information in his or her personnel file from termination of employment would convert the at-will employment doctrine into a rule requiring just cause for termination.
Meehan filed an appeal from the trial court’s decision, and an expanded panel of the appeals court (in a split decision) affirmed the decision to dismiss the claim.
The Supreme Judicial Court’s Reversal
The SJC reversed the lower courts’ rulings, holding that because the right of rebuttal provided for in the personnel records statute is protected under the law an at-will employee who exercises the right of rebuttal is protected from discharge for doing so by the public policy exception to the at-will employment doctrine that protects employees from discharge “for asserting a legally guaranteed right.” The court further held that because the personnel records statute does not provide at-will employees discharged for exercising their rights under the statute with a remedy—and instead merely authorizes the attorney general to enforce the statute’s requirements, and then only by seeking the imposition of a fine capped at $2,500—such employees may bring an action for wrongful termination in violation of public policy.
In reaching its decision, the SJC rejected the lower courts’ reasoning that the public policy exception to at-will employment only protects the exercise of employment rights defined by statute when the right is “important” or does not relate to matters that are “internal” to the employer. As the court observed, by “enacting the statutory employment right, the Legislature has already made both determinations, concluding that the right is a matter of public significance.” The court further noted that the question whether the right exercised by the employee is important or concerns internal matters is relevant primarily in the context of the fourth public policy exception to the at-will doctrine—i.e., where the employee has engaged in public deeds that the law does not absolutely require—because in such cases “there has been no legislative recognition of the right, [and] an examination of the importance and public nature of the policy at issue … is necessary to determine whether it merits protection.”
Finally, the court cautioned that although the issue presented and decided in Meehan was whether an employee may be fired “for merely filing the rebuttal as opposed to what he wrote in the rebuttal,” employers should not assume that they are protected from liability if they discharge an employee not for submitting a rebuttal but instead for the manner of expression. The court observed that because the personnel statute’s rebuttal provision applies only when there is a “disagreement” regarding the contents of the file, “the rebuttal may be expected to involve disputed, contentious subjects and vehement disagreement.” Accordingly, although “threats of personal violence, abuse, or similarly egregious responses” are not protected, an at-will employee’s “exercise and expression of the right of rebuttal should not be grounds for termination when it is directed at ‘explaining the employee’s position’ regarding the disagreement,” regardless of “how intemperate and contentious the [employee’s] expression” of his or her position may be.
Considerations for Employers
The SJC’s decision in Meehan clarifies a point that its previous decisions had left unclear—whether an employment right guaranteed by statute must be important and unrelated to the employer’s internal affairs in order to give rise to a claim for wrongful termination in violation of public policy. The court’s holding that the exercise of such rights is protected, and qualifies for the public policy exception to the at-will employment doctrine, therefore has implications beyond the specific context of the personnel records statute, and may extend to other employment rights guaranteed by a statute that does not provide a remedy to employees discharged for exercising them.
Accordingly, in the wake of Meehan, Massachusetts employers may want to exercise caution when determining whether to discharge employees who may arguably have engaged in conduct involving the exercise of a statutorily-guaranteed employment right.
Employers may also want to be wary of discharging employees for the manner in which they express their disagreement with employment decisions in rebuttal statements submitted under the personnel records statute. Absent threats of violence or abuse, an employee’s expression of vehement, intemperate, or insubordinate disagreement is likely to be protected.