Massachusetts Appeals Court Holds that Employee May be Terminated for Exercising Right to Submit a Rebuttal to Personnel File

Earlier this year, the Massachusetts Appeals Court issued a decision, Meehan v. Medical Information Technology, Inc., 99 Mass. App. Ct. 95 (2021), holding that terminating an employee solely for exercising his right to submit a written rebuttal to his personnel file pursuant to G.L. c. 149, §52C does not fall within the public policy exception to the general at-will employment rule.

Defendant employed Plaintiff as an at-will employee and placed him on a performance improvement plan (“PIP”). Approximately two weeks later, Plaintiff emailed a lengthy rebuttal to the PIP to his supervisor. That same day, Defendant’s management team met to discuss the rebuttal and decided to terminate Plaintiff’s employment immediately. Plaintiff’s legal counsel then protested his termination, filing a complaint in Superior Court asserting wrongful termination in violation of public policy.

Defendant moved to dismiss the Plaintiff’s complaint for failure to state a claim, arguing that even if it had terminated Meehan solely for submitting a rebuttal, that action did not fall within the public policy exception to the general at-will employment rule. The trial judge agreed, and the Massachusetts Appeals Court affirmed.

While the at-will employment doctrine holds that employment at-will can be terminated for any reason or no reason at all, Massachusetts courts have consistently recognized a narrow exception to this rule when termination runs contrary to a well-defined public policy. To qualify as an exception to the general rule, “the public policy must be well defined, important, and preferably embodied in a textual law source.” Ryan v. Holie Donut, Inc., 82 Mass. App. Ct. 633, 636 (2012). The Supreme Judicial Court has recognized three categories of activities that fall within the public policy exception: “employees who are terminated for asserting a legally guaranteed right (e.g., filing [a] workers’ compensation claim), for doing what the law requires (e.g., serving on a jury), or for refusing to do that which the law forbids (e.g., committing perjury).” Smith-Pfeffer v. Superintendent of the Walter E. Fernald State Sch., 404 Mass. 145, 149-150 (1989).

Although section 52C provides that an employee who disagrees with information contained in their personnel record “may submit a written statement explaining the employee’s position,” the Appeals Court held that this right does not fall within any of the three protected categories. The Court reasoned that the section is neither sufficiently important nor clearly defined enough to justify the exception. Since section 52C only provides a right of rebuttal to information in the personnel record – which, by definition, is an internal record of the employer – the Court reasoned that these rebuttals have no effect on the public in general.

Employers must remain careful, however, and should not be tempted to read Meehan’s holding beyond the narrow circumstances of the case. For instance, it remains uncertain whether the outcome would change if the rebuttal referenced activities that clearly fall within the public policy exception, such as filing a workers’ compensation claim or claiming violations of anti-discrimination laws. It is also unclear whether Meehan’s holding can be extended to any other section 52C rights, including the right to request one’s personnel file.

The Supreme Judicial Court has agreed to conduct a further review of this decision. Until the Supreme Judicial Court issues its ruling on this matter, Meehan will continue to leave employers without clear answers on the legality of terminating an employee based on the submission of a rebuttal. Accordingly, employers should continue to use caution before terminating an employee based solely on the submission of a rebuttal to their personnel file, especially when the contents of the rebuttal may concern protected activity.

This update is provided for informational purposes only and should not be considered legal advice.