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.