SJC Holds That Employers May Not Terminate At-Will Employees for Submitting Rebuttal Statements

On December 17, 2021, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued its decision in Meehan v. Medical Information Technology, Inc., reversing the dismissal of the Superior Court. The issue before the court was whether an employer can terminate an at-will employee “simply for exercising the right to file a rebuttal to be included in his personnel file” as is permitted under the Massachusetts Personnel Records Act.  Answering in the negative, the court held that such a termination would violate the public policy exception to at-will employment.

Meehan had worked as a sales representative for Medical Information Technology, Inc. (“Meditech”) since 2010. In 2017, Meditech transferred Meehan to a newly created sales specialist position. The new position had significantly different job responsibilities and differed in compensation structure. While employed in this position, Meehan was placed on a performance improvement plan. In response to his placement on the performance improvement plan, Meehan submitted a lengthy rebuttal statement. Members of Meditech’s management team met that same day to discuss Meehan’s rebuttal and decided to terminate him immediately.

Generally, an at-will employee may be terminated for any non-discriminatory reason or no reason at all. However, Massachusetts courts have recognized a narrow exception to this at-will rule where the discharge violates public policy. The public policy exception has been applied in circumstances where an employee was discharged for asserting a legally guaranteed right. A basis for finding such a right “can easily be found when the Legislature has expressed a policy position concerning the rights of employees and an employer discharges an at-will employee in violation of that established right, unless no common law rule is needed because the Legislature has provided a statutory remedy.” Here, the court found that the Personnel Records Act expressed a clear legislative position, protecting an employee’s right to submit a rebuttal statement. Specifically, M.G.L. c. 149, § 52C provides that “if there is a disagreement with any information contained in a personnel record . . . the employee may submit a written statement explaining the employee’s position which shall thereupon be contained [in the personnel record.]”  The Court found that because the Act is silent on the issue of termination or retaliation for exercising the right itself, the common-law wrongful discharge action is the appropriate remedy. Thus, the Superior Court’s dismissal of the action was inappropriate.

In so holding, the Court expressly rejected the contention that recognizing the right of rebuttal would extend just cause protection to at-will employees. Indeed, rebuttal statements do not provide any additional protections to at-will employees; rather, they merely memorialize the employee’s position regarding an issue in dispute.

Moving forward, the holding in Meehan makes clear that an employer retains the right to terminate an employee for any non-discriminatory reason or no reason.  However, an employer cannot terminate an at-will employee for exercising the employee’s right to file a rebuttal statement in the employee’s personnel file pursuant to M.G.L. chapter 149 §52C.

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