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Employers Beware: Supreme Judicial Court Holds At-Will Employees Cannot be Terminated for Exercising Statutory Right to File Rebuttal for Personnel File

The Supreme Judicial Court recently reversed the dismissal, affirmed on appeal, of an employee’s action for wrongful termination for exercising his right under G.L. c. 149 § 52C to file a rebuttal to being placed on a performance improvement plan for inclusion in his personnel file. The SJC held in Meehan v. Medical Information Technology, Inc., that “[t]ermination of an at-will employee simply for filing a rebuttal expressly authorized by G.L. c. 149, § 52C, constitutes a wrongful violation of public policy.”

In Meehan, Plaintiff, an at-will employee, had been reassigned to a position that greatly changed his responsibilities and diminished his ability to earn sales commissions. Within a year of his reassignment, Plaintiff was placed on a performance improvement plan (“PIP”). Two weeks later, Plaintiff sent his managers a lengthy rebuttal to having been placed on the PIP. Meditech terminated Plaintiff the same day he filed his rebuttal. He then filed suit against Meditech alleging wrongful termination in violation of public policy.

The Superior Court dismissed Plaintiff’s complaint on the grounds that, while Plaintiff had a statutory right to file a rebuttal, that right “was not a sufficiently important public policy [to support wrongful termination because] it merely involves matters internal to an employer’s operation.” The Appeals Court affirmed, in a split decision.

The SJC reversed the lower courts, however, finding that filing a rebuttal is a legally recognized right which “fits within the first public policy exception to employment at will.” Employment-at-will can be terminated for “any reason or for no reason.” However, courts have recognized limited exceptions to this general rule, including when employment is terminated contrary to “a well-defined public policy.” Such public policy exceptions to at-will termination include asserting a legally guaranteed right, doing what the law requires, refusing to what the law forbids, or performing important public deeds (for example, cooperating with a criminal investigation). The SJC held that filing a rebuttal for a personnel file falls into the first category of public policy exceptions to termination at will – asserting a legally guaranteed right – because a statue expressly gives an employee the right to file a rebuttal.

The SJC made clear that while an employee may not be terminated for filing a rebuttal for their personnel file, filing a rebuttal does not protect an employee from termination on other grounds. The SJC explained, “[t]he rebuttal merely memorializes the employee’s position regarding the issue in dispute; it does not provide any additional rights.” Thus, employees no longer need fear termination solely on the grounds that they filed a rebuttal for inclusion in their personnel file.

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