New Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Decision Gives Employees Added Protection For Rebutting Negative Information in their Personnel Record

In a recent decision, Meehan v. Medical Information Technology, Inc., SJC-13117 (Dec. 17, 2021) the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) held that the termination of an employee’s employment based solely upon an employee’s submission of a rebuttal to a negative performance evaluation violates the public policy exception to the employment at-will doctrine.  Although the employment law bar will undoubtedly debate the significance of this decision, we believe that this holding adds significant teeth to the Massachusetts Personnel Records Law, which was previously subject to confusing interpretations by lower courts and has often been ignored or misinterpreted by Massachusetts employers.

Under Massachusetts law, at-will employment can generally be terminated for any reason, or no reason at all.  There are limited exceptions to the at-will rule, including those instances when employment is terminated for reasons that are contrary to public policy.  In Meehan, the SJC held that because employees have the legally guaranteed right to submit a rebuttal to negative information placed in their personnel record (pursuant to the Massachusetts Personnel Records Law, G.L.c. 149, §52C), terminating an employee for exercising that right violates public policy. 

In Meehan, the plaintiff alleged he was wrongfully terminated by his employer after submitting a rebuttal to a performance improvement plan (PIP) that he received from his employer, Meditech.  Based on the facts asserted, Meehan emailed a lengthy rebuttal to the PIP to his supervisor, and his employment was terminated that same day. 

In 2019, a Norfolk County Superior Court judge dismissed the lawsuit, ruling that the claim predicated upon the Personnel Records Law did not fall within the public policy exception to the at-will employment rule.  The court reasoned that to hold otherwise would establish a loophole for other employees in Meehan’s situation to avoid being fired by simply filing rebuttals.  The Appeals Court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of Meehan’s claim. 

On further appellate review, however, the SJC reversed, holding that an employee’s exercise of his or her right to file a rebuttal to his or her personnel record constitutes a public policy exception to the general rule of at-will employment.  According to Justice Kafker, “The employer remains free to terminate the employee for any reason or no reason so long as the employer does not terminate the employee for filing the rebuttal itself.  The rebuttal merely memorializes the employee’s position regarding the issue in dispute; it does not provide any additional rights.”

This decision is important for both employers and employees in Massachusetts to understand as it is routine for negative information to be included in an employee’s personnel record.  To ensure compliance with the Massachusetts Personnel Records Law and/or to better understand your rights and potential exposure after the Meehan decision, please contact Mike Chinitz or Elizabeth Inglis at Chinitz Law LLC.

This information is a general description of the law and is intended for general information purposes only.  It is not intended to provide specific legal advice nor is it intended to create an attorney-client relationship with Chinitz Law LLC.  Before taking any action on this information you should seek professional counsel.  Attorney advertising.  Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome. 

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