Massachusetts law gives employees the right to place a written statement in their personnel file if they disagree with information their employer has put into the file that has or may negatively affect the employee’s qualification for employment, promotion, transfer, additional compensation or the possibility that the employee will be subject to disciplinary action. But in the recent case of Meehan v. Medical Information Technology, Inc., the Appeals Court held that an employer can fire an at-will employee simply for exercising this right.
In Meehan, the plaintiff’s employer put Mr. Meehan on a performance improvement plan (PIP). Meehan wrote a lengthy rebuttal to the PIP under the authority of Massachusetts General Law c. 149, s. 52C. Meehan was fired the same day, and then filed a complaint alleging that he had been fired in violation of public policy.
The Appeals Court decision recognized that, while at-will employees can be fired for any reason or no reason (provided the termination is not related to the fact that the employee falls within a protected class), they cannot be terminated contrary to a well-defined public policy. Nevertheless, it held that the law allowing for rebuttals to be placed in employment files was not sufficiently important enough or clearly defined enough to provide an exemption to the general rule that at-will employees can be terminated for any reason.
Two judges on the Appeals Court panel dissented, arguing that if employees are allowed to be terminated for exercising their statutory right under Massachusetts law, then “[o]nly the credulous and fools would exercise this right.” They argued that because the Massachusetts Legislature found that this right was important enough to codify in the law, exercising such a right should be protected as part of public policy.
Until either the Supreme Judicial Court or the Legislature weighs in on this issue, for now employers may freely terminate at-will employees simply for exercising their right to disagree with information in their personnel records. Employees should beware of the risk that exercising such a right may provide justification for their employers to terminate them.