By: Laura M. Raisty, Esq. & Julianne C. Fitzpatrick

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) ruled in Meehan v. Medical Information Technology, Inc., 488 Mass. 730 (2021) that an employee cannot be discharged for submitting a written rebuttal to information placed in their personnel file.

The Personnel Records Statute (M.G.L. c. 149, § 52C)

The Massachusetts personnel records statute, M.G.L. c. 149, § 52C, requires an employer to “notify an employee within 10 days of the employer placing in the employee’s personnel record any information to the extent that the information is, has been used or may be used, to negatively affect the employee's qualification for employment, promotion, transfer, additional compensation or the possibility that the employee will be subject to disciplinary action.”  The Statute goes on to provide that if an employee disagrees with any information in their personnel record, and the employee and employer fail to reach a mutual agreement to correct or remove such information, the employee may “submit a written statement explaining the employee’s position” that will become part of the personnel file.

The Meehan Case

In the Meehan case, the employer placed the plaintiff on a written performance plan.  The plaintiff submitted a written rebuttal to that document – as is permitted by M.G.L. c. 149, § 52C – and his employment was terminated on the same day.  Plaintiff alleged that he was fired for filing the rebuttal.

Generally, employment at will can be terminated at any time or for any or no reason.  There are, however, exceptions to this rule, including when employment is terminated in violation of public policy.  In Meehan, the SJC determined that the right of rebuttal in the personnel records law is a legally guaranteed right of employment and, as a result, termination of employment for filing a rebuttal constitutes wrongful termination in violation of public policy.

The Meehan decision does not mean that an employer cannot terminate an employee who filed a rebuttal.  As explained by the SJC, “if an employee had an attendance problem, was disciplined for it, and filed a rebuttal, the rebuttal would not in any way shield the employee from being disciplined or fired for lack of attendance. If the absenteeism continued, the employee could be terminated from employment, regardless of the rebuttal.”  Stated differently, filing a rebuttal does not insulate an employee from termination of employment – but an employer cannot discharge, or otherwise retaliate against, the employee because they filed a rebuttal.

Takeaways for Employers

As a result of the Meehan decision, employers should act with caution and deliberation when deciding whether to terminate an employee who has exercised any guaranteed right of employment, including (but not necessarily limited to) filing a rebuttal to information placed in their personnel file.  Employers cannot discharge an employee for exercising that right, but may terminate employment for other reasons like attendance, misconduct, or poor performance.  Of crucial importance in making such a decision is contemporaneous, complete, and accurate documentation supporting any attendance issues, misconduct, or poor performance.

Those with questions regarding the above, including best practices associated with termination of employment, are encouraged to contact a K&S attorney for assistance and advice regarding your specific circumstances.

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