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Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Employer may not fire for personnel rebuttal, high court holds, even though statute provides no remedy

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Reversing a problematic and divided intermediate appellate court decision, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held in December that an at-will, private-sector employee may not be terminated for exercising a statutory right to rebut negative information in the employee's personnel file.

I wrote here at The Savory Tort about the intermediate appellate court decision in January 2021:

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.

The Appeals Court had struggled with the case, deciding it 3-2 on rehearing after an initial 2-1 ruling against Meehan.  I commented then: The outcome was not inconsistent with American courts' general inhospitality to public policy-based claims of wrongful termination.  At the same time, the outcome was discordant with Massachusetts's more liberal disposition on wrongful termination, especially considering the civil rights-protective vein of the rebuttal statute.

The Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) recognized that public-policy constraints on at-will employment termination must be narrowly construed.  But constraint 

has been recognized "for asserting a legally guaranteed right (e.g., filing a worker's compensation claim), for doing what the law requires (e.g., serving on a jury), or for refusing to do that which the law forbids (e.g., committing perjury)" [SJC's added emphasis].... In addition to these three categories, this court subsequently created a fourth category to protect those "performing important public deeds, even though the law does not absolutely require the performance of such a deed." .... Such deeds include, for example, cooperating with an ongoing criminal investigation.

The rebuttal statute fell in the first category, the SJC held.  The trial court and Appeals Court had improperly second-guessed the importance of the statutory right and discounted it for its relation primarily to internal private affairs.  Those considerations bear on the fourth category, the court explained.  The legislative pronouncement is conclusive in the first category.

Even so, the court opined, the right of rebuttal is important, because it facilitates compliance with other workplace laws, "such as workplace safety, the timely payment of wages, and the prevention of discrimination, and nonemployment-related activity, such as those governing the environment and the economy."

While the lower courts were put off by the legislature's seemingly exclusive express remedy of a fine for non-compliance, the SJC regarded the omission of a retaliation remedy as mere failure to anticipate.  "Indeed," the court opined, retaliatory termination "would appear to be sticking a finger in the eye of the Legislature.... We conclude that the Legislature would not have permitted such a flouting of its authority, had it contemplated the possibility."

An employee claiming wrongful termination still has a hard road to recovery.  The court emphasized that causation, connecting rebuttal and termination, may raise a question of fact in such cases, and here on remand.  Moreover, an employee can overstep and forfeit common law protection.  The statute "does not extend to threats of personal violence, abuse, or similarly egregious responses if they are included in the rebuttal."

The case is Meehan v. Medical Information Technology, Inc., No. SJC-13117 (Mass. Dec. 17, 2021).  Justice Scott Kafker wrote the opinion of the unanimous court.

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