An at-will employee who was fired when he filed a rebuttal letter for inclusion in his personnel file after being placed on a performance improvement plan could bring a wrongful discharge claim, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in reversing a decision from the state Appeals Court.
The state Personnel Records Act, G.L.c. 149, §52C, provides that employees who disagree with any information placed in their personnel records may submit for the record a written statement explaining their position.
In dismissing plaintiff Terence Meehan’s wrongful termination claim against his former employer, defendant Meditech, a Superior Court judge found that Meehan’s statutory right to submit a rebuttal did not fall within the public policy exception to the at-will doctrine because it was not an important enough public policy. The Appeals Court subsequently affirmed the dismissal.
But the SJC reversed.
“When addressing the discharge of an employee for the exercise of an employment right defined by statute, we do not, as the motion judge and Appeals Court did here, decide whether the right is important or relates only to internal matters,” Justice Scott L. Kafker wrote for the court. “In enacting the statutory employment right, the Legislature has already made both determinations, concluding that the right is a matter of public significance.”
The 18-page decision is Meehan v. Medical Information Technology, Inc.
Plaintiff’s counsel Robert S. Mantell of Boston called the decision a “holiday gift” for employees seeking to communicate frank truth to their employers and for employers who want to receive accurate information.
“Employees now know that they will be able to advocate for themselves without retaliation,” Mantell said.
Newton, Massachusetts, attorney James A. Kobe, who also represented the plaintiff, added that he was pleased the SJC upheld Meehan’s rights and the rights of all other employees under the Personnel Records Act.
Gavriela M. Bogin-Farber of Boston, who submitted an amicus brief on behalf of the Massachusetts Employment Lawyers Association, said she was “literally jumping up and down” when the decision was announced.
“The SJC has made it abundantly clear that an employee may not be fired for exercising a statutory employment right.”
“The SJC has made it abundantly clear that an employee may not be fired for exercising a statutory employment right,” said Bogin-Farber, the current MELA president. “The court clarified that where there’s a statutory right involved, it’s done, it’s covered. Wrongful termination and public policy claims apply, and there should not be an analysis of whether the policy is important or whether the issue relates primarily to internal affairs.”
Bogin-Farber was also excited that the court addressed the substance of employee rebuttals by acknowledging such rebuttals often involve disputed and contentious subject matter in which emotions run high and by emphasizing that no matter how “intemperate or contentious” an employee’s language may be, he or she cannot be fired for it absent a threat of personal violence or something similarly egregious.
“That wasn’t at issue in this case, but the court anticipated — and rightly so — that it would be an issue in many other cases, and they addressed it head-on and got it right,” she said.
On the other hand, James P. McKenna of North Grafton, Massachusetts, who submitted an amicus brief on behalf of the Pioneer Institute, expressed concern that the ruling would impact economic freedom and competitiveness.
“The decision does change the nature of at-will employment while overruling prior [Massachusetts appellate] decisions,” McKenna said. “The public policy exception has, in the past, been very narrowly construed, and the courts have said that not every statutory right provides the grounds for a claim. Now that has changed. It’s no longer simply the important rights or the well-defined ones; it’s any claim that could be linked to a statutory violation.”
However, Lisa Stephanian Burton, a management-side employment lawyer in Boston, said she was not surprised by the decision.
“I was more surprised by the Appeals Court decision in that the statute specifically provides that you can write a rebuttal,” Burton said.
She also downplayed suggestions that the decision raises a “gloom and doom” scenario for employers, emphasizing that even if an employee has submitted a rebuttal, his or her employer may still terminate for performance or conduct.
“Most employers will terminate for legitimate business reasons and not as a response to somebody raising a difference of opinion with regard to a discipline issue,” Burton said. “This decision was based on the premise that the only and sole reason for the termination was submission of a rebuttal. But we don’t have the rebuttal itself, and the court made clear that if somebody in [providing a rebuttal] threatens others or engages in threatening or violent behavior, that won’t be protected.”
Meehan started working for Meditech as a sales representative in 2010.
In 2017, the company reshuffled its 12-person regional sales department, keeping nine employees as sales reps and moving the other three, including Meehan, to a newly created “sales specialist” position.
“The decision does change the nature of at-will employment while overruling prior [Massachusetts appellate] decisions.”
According to Meehan, the new position greatly impacted his job responsibilities while significantly undercutting his ability to earn commissions.
Specifically, Meehan charged, the structure of the position created little incentive for other sales personnel to utilize sales specialists like himself. Even if they did, he asserted, the actual potential to earn commission income was very limited.
In early July 2018, Meehan and the two others who had been shifted to the sales specialist role were placed on performance improvement plans.
Two weeks later, Meehan sent his supervisor a lengthy rebuttal to the decision to place him on the PIP.
Members of Meditech management met that same day to discuss what Meehan had submitted, and the president and CEO decided Meehan should be fired immediately.
Three months later, the other two sales specialists were taken off their PIPs, with at least one of them apparently being told by a Meditech representative that the PIP was “wrong.”
Meanwhile, Meehan hired a lawyer and protested his termination, filing a complaint in Superior Court alleging wrongful discharge in violation of public policy.
While recognizing Meehan’s statutory right to submit a rebuttal, Judge Diane C. Freniere granted Meditech’s motion to dismiss, reasoning that the statutory right was “not a sufficiently important public policy” to support a wrongful discharge claim because it involved only “matters internal to an employer’s operation.”
Freniere also reasoned that to shield from termination any employee submitting a written statement disagreeing with information contained in a personnel record would convert the at-will employment doctrine into a “just cause” rule.
The Appeals Court, in a split decision with an expanded panel, affirmed. Meehan subsequently sought further appellate review.
THE ISSUE Could an at-will employee who was fired when he filed a rebuttal letter for inclusion in his personnel file after being placed on a performance improvement plan bring a wrongful discharge claim?
DECISION Yes (Supreme Judicial Court)
LAWYERS Robert S. Mantell of Powers, Jodoin, Margolis & Mantell, Boston; James A. Kobe of Newton (plaintiff)
Scott J. Brewerton of Medical Information Technology, Westwood (defense)
The SJC reversed the lower court decision, rejecting the reasoning that application of the public policy exception to employment at-will requires an analysis of whether the right is “important” or relates only to “internal matters.”
“[E]ven if we had to decide whether the right of rebuttal was important, we would so conclude here,” Kafker said, emphasizing that the right of rebuttal and accuracy of information in personnel files are important for employees in being able to seek other employment and not become public charges.
Additionally, the right of rebuttal is important for evaluating compliance with wage, antidiscrimination, workplace safety and other important laws of the commonwealth, Kafker continued.
Meanwhile, the SJC was unpersuaded by the lower courts’ reasoning that the ability to bring a wrongful discharge claim based on a violation of the statutory right of rebuttal would eviscerate the at-will doctrine.
“The employer remains free to terminate the employee for any reason or no reason so long as the employer does not terminate the employee for filing the rebuttal itself,” the court concluded. “We therefore reverse the Superior Court’s order allowing the defendant’s motion to dismiss, and the matter is remanded to the Superior Court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”