Massachusetts Appeals Court Refuses to Expand Exceptions to At-Will Employment Rule

Once again, Massachusetts courts have refused to expand exceptions to the state’s general rule that employers can terminate employees whenever they see fit. This time, though, it was a closer call than usual. In January, the Court of Appeals voted 3-2 that Medical Information Technology, Inc. (Meditech) did nothing legally wrong when it fired its employee for submitting a written rebuttal to a work improvement plan it issued to him. The two dissenters objected to the majority’s conclusion, citing employees’ statutory right to submit such rebuttals and arguing that allowing employers to fire them for doing so effectively nullifies the law.

The published facts of the case are that simple. Because Meditech moved to dismiss the lawsuit on filing and did not include the rebuttal as part of its papers, the court was unaware what the employee wrote and, consequently, whether the content played a role in the decision to fire him. The majority took that point as irrelevant, as did the judge in the superior court. Though the Massachusetts personnel file statute provides that employees have a right to rebut negative information placed into their personnel files, the majority concluded, the law does not protect them against retaliation for doing so. It saw no reason to infer one and reasoned that doing so would turn the courts into “super personnel departments.”

By its decision, the appeals court reaffirmed the at-will doctrine, which is subject to only a few exceptions created to protect strong and well-established public policies. The at-will rule provides that employers and employees can end employment any time, for any reason, with or without notice. While firing a worker for, say, serving on a jury or reporting criminal activity is going too far, doing so because an employee rebuts job discrimination is not. The court has often refused to extend employee protections in this area in the past. In this case, however, its refusal carries a bit more significance because suit was based on an employee’s exercise of a right that all agree he possesses.