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Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Divided court allows employee firing for exercising statutory right to supplement personnel record

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An at-will employee may be fired for rebutting an adverse employment action, the Massachusetts Appeals Court held today, despite a state law that specifically empowers employees to add rebuttals to their personnel records.  The decision drew a vigorous dissent from two of the five justices on the rehearing panel.

As my 1L students tire of hearing, we read cases in law school (in the common law tradition) for one of a number of purposes.  For any given lesson, it's important to know which our purpose is, especially when it is to demonstrate the rule by counterexample.  To teach wrongful termination, I have used a federal case, applying Massachusetts law, in which the court is much more generous to the at-will claimant than a state high court typically is.  But today's case proved only the norm.

The instant plaintiff found no relief from the usual rule that, as the Appeals Court quoted precedent, "employment at will can be terminated for any reason or for no reason."  Massachusetts admits of narrow exception to the rule for "well-defined public policy," "preferably embodied in a textual law source."  Think firing a model for taking maternity leave, a claim that resonates with dimensions of both statutory entitlement and civil rights.  Yet even while the plaintiff here pointed to a specific statutory entitlement, the Appeals Court rejected his claim.

Plaintiff Terence Meehan, an employee discharged by defendant Medical Information Technology, Inc. (Meditech), availed of a Massachusetts statute that generously empowers an employee to rebut in writing negative information placed into the employee's personnel file.  The purpose behind the statute is to build a record so that a public authority, such as the state anti-discrimination commission, can better investigate any later legal claim of improper adverse action.  But the procedural mechanism of the statute, merely allowing the employee to rebut the record, does not itself articulate a basis in public policy to resist termination, the court held.

Meehan's rebuttal was not in the appellate record, the court wrote in a footnote.  From its absence, one might infer that it was not predicated on what the court would regard as worthy public policy.  An employer's "internal administration, policy, functioning, and other matters of an organization cannot be the basis for a public policy exception," the Supreme Judicial Court held previously.  "If it were otherwise, our courts would become super personnel departments," the Appeals Court reasoned.

Justice Meade
Mass.gov
It would be hard to conclude that the court's ruling is other than consistent with common law norms.  Many a state court has never seen a wrongful termination claim it liked, at least in the context of at-will employment.  And the notion of utterly "at will" conforms to the American norm of freedom to contract.

At the same time, the ruling seems to undermine the statute.  As a practical matter, an employer asserts many reasons for an adverse personnel action, and an employee's rebuttal answers in kind.  The rebuttal itself is then a viable predicate for termination—"not a team player"—even when the employee alleges, inter alia, an actionable wrong, such as discrimination.  The employee may then complain of discrimination vis-à-vis the precipitating adverse action.  But the employee had that option anyway.  There is nothing to be gained, and everything to be lost, by using the rebuttal statute as a resolution procedure.

Justice Henry
Mass.gov

That was the thrust of the dissent.  "Only the credulous and fools would exercise this right henceforth," Justice Henry wrote of the rebuttal statute.

Meditech admitted that it terminated Meehan solely for writing the rebuttal, something he had a statutory right to do.  Dispute resolution is among the purposes of the statute, Justice Henry reasoned, possibly sparing the Commonwealth an unemployment insurance claim.  At minimum, the personnel record, which might be reviewed by a prospective second employer, is complete with both sides of the story.  Meditech has no apparent, legitimate interest, Justice Henry observed, merely in disallowing rebuttal under the statute.

The dissent concluded:

The result the majority reaches renders the statutory right useless and illusory, and empowers employers to punish employees for doing exactly what the Legislature authorized them to do. Countenancing such a result is wholly inconsistent with a just—or even a sane—employment policy. The majority essentially casts the Legislature as a trickster, creating a trap for unwitting employees that employers now may spring.

The case is Meehan v. Medical Information Technology, Inc., No. 19-P-1412 (Jan. 20, 2021).  Justice William J. Meade wrote the majority opinion, which Chief Justice Green and Justice Vuono joined.  Justice Meade was an appellate attorney in the attorney general's office in the 1990s and deputy chief legal counsel to Governor Mitt Romney in the 20-aughts before going on the bench, and he teaches appellate practice at Suffolk Law School.  

Justice Vickie L. Henry wrote the dissent, which Justice Rubin joined.  Justice Henry was a commercial litigator in intellectual property, product liability, and other matters for more than a decade, and then a senior staff attorney for Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders before her appointment to the bench.  The case was reheard after the initial panel divided 2-1.  The addition of two judges apparently only added a vote for each corner.

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