Archives for August 2014

Court Declines to Expand the Massachusetts At-Will Employment Rule

Once again, Massachusetts has rejected an employee’s effort to expand the public policy exception to the at-will employment rule. This time, a fired worked argued that public policy should prevent employers from terminating workers who threaten to sue a third party in connection with a work-related injury. The court disagreed.

Citing precedent, the Massachusetts Court of Appeals ruled this month that the trial court’s judgment against the former employee was appropriate. It reasoned that the narrow public policy exception to the at-will employment rule is meant to be just that – narrow. Holding differently, it reiterated, would ultimately eviscerate the rule via exceptions that would swallow the rule and force employers to have “just cause to terminate an at-will employee.”

Under the at-will rule, employees and employers are free to end their working relationships at any time, for any reason. Neither side needs to have a reason or provide notice in advance. Massachusetts courts created the public policy exception to protect employees from job loss when their conduct promotes a recognized public policy that benefits the Commonwealth. The plaintiff in Santarpia vs. Senior Residential Care/Kingston, Inc. claimed she was let go two years after suffering a workplace injury because an attorney sent a letter to her employer’s landlord seeking damages for her injuries. Though the employer could not (and did not) fire the worker because she was injured on the job, it could do so based on her demand to its landlord.

Former Teacher to Keep Pension Despite Child Pornography Conviction

Despite pleading guilty to buying and possessing child pornography, a former 9th grade science teacher, coach and sports referee for the Amherst-Pelham regional school district will keep his retirement benefits. In a decision released this week, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court found that, because the teacher’s crimes did not relate to or concern his teaching job, a retirement benefits forfeiture provision could not be applied to deny him the pension he earned during his 22 years as an educator.

The teacher, Ronald Garney, was identified in 2004 as part of a federal investigation into web sites that sell child pornography. Following two years of monitoring by local police, Mr. Garney’s home was raided and various illegal pornographic images were found. He acknowledged that he’d viewed child pornography for 12 years and, in lieu of being fired, resigned his teaching position. Upon reaching retirement age in 2007 and before he pled guilty to the charges against him, Mr. Garney applied for and was granted his benefits. The Massachusetts Teachers Retirement System reversed that decision in 2009. None of the illicit images or activities related to Mr. Garney’s teaching position or his students and, for this reason, the SJC concluded, it was compelled by statutory language to find that his earned retirement benefits were not forfeited by law.

Misclassification of Independent Contractors Defense

We defended a company against a class of employees who claimed they were misclassified as independent contractors and, consequently, denied wages due to them. The suit involved several complex legal issues that surround application of the Massachusetts Wage Act. The plaintiffs claimed that, due to their misclassification, they did not receive pay for all hours they were worked; were denied overtime pay during the 60-70 hour weeks they sometimes worked; and were forced to pay for benefits that their employer must by law provide, such as workers’ compensation insurance and mileage reimbursement. Because the Act provides for the automatic tripling of unpaid wages and the group of employees involved was potentially quite large, the client faced potential damages well into the millions of dollars. The case involved multiple defendants who shared potential liability while possessing their own individual defenses. This complicated the ability of the defendants to work together cooperatively in defense of the lawsuit.

Result:  We worked effectively with co-counsel on a joint defense and successfully defeated claims that our client was an employer or was otherwise legally responsible for any misclassification or underpayment of wages under the Wage Act.