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Massachusetts Appeals Court Addresses Application of Public Policy Exception to At-Will Employment

Written by: Adam M. Hamel

Published in NEHRA News (2/18/2021)

In a recent decision, the Massachusetts Appeals Court ruled that the narrow public policy exception to the general principle that an “at will” employee can be terminated without cause does not apply to an employee fired for submitting a rebuttal to information in the employee’s personnel file.

It’s well known that an employer can terminate an at-will employee for any reason or no reason at all.  Massachusetts, like many other states, recognizes an exception to this rule when employment is terminated “contrary to a well-defined public policy.”  In order for the public policy exception to apply, the policy at issue must be “well-defined, important, and preferably embodied in a textual law source.”  The public policy exception may apply in situations when an employee is terminated for asserting a legally-guaranteed right, like filing a workers’ comp claim; for doing something that the law requires, such as performing jury service; or for refusing to do something that the law prohibits, such as refusing to commit perjury on behalf of the employer.  By contrast, matters of a company’s internal administration, policies, functioning, and other internal matters do not invoke the public policy exception.

In this case, the plaintiff, who was a sales rep, was demoted and placed on a performance information plan, or “PIP,” as part of a company reorganization.  The plaintiff disagreed with the PIP, and exercised his right to submit a rebuttal to be included in his personnel file.  (The Massachusetts personnel records statute, G.L. c. 149, § 52C, provides that, when a disagreement regarding material contained in an employee’s personnel file can’t be resolved by mutual agreement, the employee is entitled to submit a written statement to be included in the file.)  Immediately after receiving the employee’s rebuttal to the PIP, the employer terminated the plaintiff, who sued, arguing that the firing was a wrongful termination under the public policy exception to the at will doctrine.

The Appeals Court found that the public policy exception does not apply to an employee terminated for submitting a rebuttal to information in the employee’s personnel file because the right to submit such a rebuttal does not embody a well-defined public policy, and because personnel files are internal company records that are not of significant importance to the community generally.

Two Justices of the Appeals Court dissented, stating that not applying the public policy exception to protect an employee who takes advantage of the statutory right to submit a statement for inclusion in their personnel record nullifies that right.  The dissenters wrote that “only the credulous and fools” would exercise the right to submit a rebuttal in light of this decision.  The dissenters would have found that the right to rebut goes beyond mere matters of internal company administration, and serves several important public interests, including encouraging cooperative resolution of workplace disputes, promoting employment security, and protecting the public from increased costs of unemployment.

Employers would be wise to view the ruling in this case with some caution.  First, the decision is from the intermediate appellate court, and is subject to further review by the Supreme Judicial Court.  Also, the case was decided on a very narrow issue.  Every termination decision is unique, and there could be numerous other factors at play.  Employers are always encouraged to seek advice from employment counsel before making a termination decision.

The case is Meehan v. Medical Information Technology, Inc. (AC 19-P-1412) (Mass. Appeals Court, Jan. 20, 2021).

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