On December 17, 2021, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that an employee could sustain a claim for wrongful termination in violation of public policy after his employer discharged him for submitting a written rebuttal to a performance improvement plan kept in his personnel file. In Meehan v. Medical Information Technology, Inc., SJC 13117, the SJC overturned the Appeals Court’s determination that because there is no statutory provision prohibiting retaliation against or termination of an employee who submits a rebuttal to information in their personnel file, the employee could not sustain a claim for wrongful termination. The SJC’s decision is a welcomed sight for employees who should not feel restrained against responding to negative information maintained in their personnel files and explaining their position.
The plaintiff in Meehan was placed on a performance improvement plan to which he submitted a written rebuttal. Members of the defendant’s management team met to discuss the plaintiff’s rebuttal and agreed to terminate his employment immediately. The plaintiff filed a one-count complaint alleging wrongful termination in violation of public policy. The trial court allowed the defendant’s motion to dismiss, finding that the plaintiff’s right to submit a rebuttal was “not a sufficiently important public policy” to support the plaintiff’s claim, and noting that such a right merely involved “matters internal to an employer’s operation.” The Appeals Court affirmed the decision dismissing the complaint.
While Massachusetts is an at-will employment state by which employment can be terminated for any reason or for no reason, its courts have recognized statutory and common law exceptions to the general rule, such as when employment is terminated based on a discriminatory animus or contrary to a well-defined public policy. As a threshold matter, the SJC concluded that a public policy employment right existed pursuant to the personnel records statute, which protects the ability of employees to seek other employment and enables employers to make informed hiring decisions. In deciding whether to create a common-law public policy exception to employment at will, the SJC considered whether a statutory remedy for the public policy violation at issue already existed.
In this case, the personnel records statute relied on by the plaintiff did not provide at-will employees with a statutory remedy, but instead authorized only the Attorney General to enforce its provisions. Therefore, the SJC was limited to determining whether terminating an employee for submitting a rebuttal to negative information in their personnel file constituted wrongful termination in violation of public policy. Noting the absence of any statutory remedy for at-will employees under the personnel records statute, the SJC concluded that "the Legislature would not have permitted such a flouting of its authority, had it contemplated the possibility" of an employee being terminated for submitting a rebuttal to information contained in their personnel file. It held that the plaintiff's termination simply for filing a rebuttal expressly permitted by the personnel records statute constituted wrongful termination in violation of public policy.
The SJC also qualified its holding, stating that the employee's rebuttal does not provide them with additional rights, and that the at-will employment tenant of "termination for any reason or for no reason" still rings true. Additionally, the SJC cautioned that while the rebuttal permits the employee to share their version of events or position of disagreement with the information contained in their personnel file, the rebuttal may not include threats of personal violence, abuse, or other egregious responses.
The Meehan decision provides employers and employees with valuable guidance underlying the important employment decisions that often ignite contentious employment litigation. By making employment decisions consistent with the SJC’s opinion, employers can avoid costly and protracted litigation.
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