Employee Cannot be Fired for Exercise of Lawful Right

The “at-will” employment relationship is extremely common, offering both the employer and the employee the ability to terminate the relationship on short notice and with no conditions.  Despite the flexibility this arrangement offers, there are exceptions to the rule. For example, an employee cannot be fired for reasons that violate public policy (such as discrimination).  Employers typically must outline a reason for firing an employee, such as poor performance or economic business considerations. Also, an employee cannot quit and take proprietary information to a new job. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court recently clarified whether an at-will employee’s filing of a rebuttal to be included in his personnel file presented an important public policy for which the at-will employment exception applies. The facts presented in Meeham v. Meditech were the following:

In Massachusetts, an employee who disagrees with information placed in his or her personnel file may place a written statement in the file outlining his or her position. See Mass. Gen. L. c. 149, §52C (the Personnel Records Law). After receiving a subpar review and being placed on a probationary plan, an at-will employee submitted a written rebuttal to the employer’s statement in his file. The employer fired the employee for doing so.

The employee brought a wrongful termination action in the Superior Court arguing that the employer could not fire him for taking a lawful action. The Superior Court dismissed the case, holding that the Personnel Records Law did not fall within the public policy exception to the at-will doctrine because, in the Court’s view, the policy was unimportant, holding that the right only pertained to “matters internal to an employer’s operation.” A split Massachusetts Appeals Court panel agreed and affirmed the lower court’s decision. The Supreme Judicial Court took the case on further appeal and reversed, holding that a statutory right is always an important public policy.

The facts showed that the only reason the employee was fired was because management disagreed with the information the employee submitted in the rebuttal to his being placed on a probationary plan. The employer did not indicate the firing was for any business reason, or because of substandard performance, or any other issue other than management’s reaction to the rebuttal. An employer must at least outline a “just cause” for terminating an at-will employee. Disagreeing with an employee’s statement in his or her personnel file does not constitute just cause to terminate the employee because the employee is within his right to do so. Rather, exercising a right conferred by law falls within the public policy exception to the at-will employment doctrine. The employee’s right to place a rebuttal in his or her file is statutory; the Legislature created a public policy worthy of protection.

An employer seeking to dismiss an at-will employee should be prepared to support its decision with a reasonable business reason and cannot deny the employee a statutorily protected right.  To do otherwise is to violate public policy and thus improperly dismiss an at-will employee.


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