Seyfarth Synopsis: On December 17, 2021, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court extended the public policy exception to at-will employment to the termination of an employee for filing a rebuttal to a personnel record. The Massachusetts Personnel Records statute (G. L. c. 149, § 52C) provides that if an employee disagrees with the contents of a personnel record, the employee may submit a written statement explaining their position. The Court determined that this right to file a rebuttal is a legally guaranteed right of public significance, despite dealing with internal matters of employer operation, and that an employer who terminates an employee for exercising such a right violates the public policy exception to at-will employment. The Court explained that an employee's right of rebuttal should not be grounds for termination, "no matter how intemperate and contentious the expression in the rebuttal."    

On December 17, 2021, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) held that the termination of an at-will employee for exercising their right to rebuttal under the Massachusetts Personnel Records statute is a violation of public policy. In Meehan v. Med. Info. Tech., Inc., an employee alleged that his employer terminated his employment after he filed a rebuttal in response to being placed on a "performance improvement plan." The complaint did not include a copy of the rebuttal, and on the employer's motion to dismiss, the trial court assumed that the cause of termination was merely the filing of the rebuttal. The trial court dismissed the complaint on the grounds that the right to file a rebuttal under the personnel record statute was not a sufficiently important matter of public policy and involved matters internal to an employer. The trial court was also concerned that recognizing such a right would transform at-will employment into one for just cause. A divided Appeals Court affirmed.

The SJC reversed. Under the Massachusetts Personnel Records statute, G. L. c. 149 § 52C, if an employee disagrees with information contained in his personnel record, he may supplement the personnel record with a written statement explaining his position. Although the Legislature declined to create a statutory claim for retaliation under the statute, the SJC held that terminating an employee for filing a written response to a personnel record violated the public policy exception to at-will employment. Under that exception, employees may not be terminated for asserting a legally guaranteed right, such as filing a worker's compensation claim. The SJC explained that in enacting G. L. c. 149 § 52C, the Legislature had determined that the right to file a rebuttal is a matter of public significance. Although the lower courts had emphasized that the filing of a rebuttal is an internal operational matter, the SJC held this was not relevant to the analysis because the Legislature had recognized the right to file a rebuttal. In its view, it was unnecessary to assess the importance and public nature of the right.

Further, the Court rejected the notion that its decision undermined the at-will doctrine. Contrary to the lower courts, the SJC explained that an employer remains free to terminate an employee for any lawful reason or no reason at all, with or without notice. According to the SJC, an employee's rebuttal simply memorializes his or her position; it does not create any additional rights.

However, in dicta, the Court limited an employer's ability to take any action against an employee for the contents of an employee's rebuttal. The Court explained that emotions inevitably run high in this process, and the employee's expression of disagreement with information in a personnel record, "no matter how intemperate and contentious the expression" may not be grounds for termination. The Court noted, though, that this protection from termination does not extend to "threats of personal violence, abuse, or similarly egregious responses."

The decision in Meehan opens the door to increased litigation over performance reviews, performance improvement plans, and other standard tools for managing employee performance. Whenever an employee disagrees with the contents of a record and submits a rebuttal, he or she will be able to claim that any subsequent personnel action, such as termination, was due to the filing of the rebuttal rather than the underlying performance issue. Further, the plaintiffs' bar is likely to claim that the Court's analysis must be read as extending the public policy exception to every statute in which the Legislature created a right for employees but declined to create a private right of action.    

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