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Understanding Employment at Will

The recent case of Meehan v. Medical Information Technology, Inc. (Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, December 17, 2021) discusses the limitations on terminating an employee at will.

In Meehan, Terrence Meehan was placed on a “performance improvement plan.” He submitted a lengthy rebuttal to being placed on the plan and, as a result, was terminated.
Meehan sued.

The trial court concluded that as an employee at will (an employee not under an employment contract), Meehan’s employer could terminate his employment at will--that is--at any time and without cause. Meehan appealed.

In resolving the dispute the state Supreme Judicial Court recognized the ordinary rule that an employee at will may be fired at any time, without cause, and went on to considered the exceptions to the ordinary rule.

Exceptions to the ordinary rule are intended to address terminations that are contrary to public policy. The exceptions involve, for instance, terminations for asserting a legally guaranteed right (e.g., filing a worker’s compensation claim), for doing what the law requires (e.g., serving jury duty), for refusing to do that which the law forbids (e.g., committing perjury) and for performing important public deeds, even though the law does not absolutely require the performance of such a deed (e.g., cooperating with an ongoing criminal investigation).

The court went on to recognize that an employer’s internal policy, administration, and functioning ordinarily do not create an exception to the ordinary rule. The court provided several examples: an employee may be terminated for advancing rights the employee possessed as a shareholder of the employer; an employee may be terminated for reporting irregularities to high-level officials; in some circumstances an employee may be terminated for refusing to work overtime.

The court distinguished Meehan, however, because the rebuttal procedure in which Meehan participated was provided not by internal company procedure but by statute (M.G.L. ch. 149, §52C). The court “conclude[d] that the statutory right of rebuttal . . . is a legally guaranteed right of employment, and therefore, termination from employment for the exercise of this legally guaranteed right fits within the . . . public policy exception to employment at will . . .” 

Somewhat cryptically, the court continued: “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 . . . If the employer decides it prefers someone else in the job, the employer remains free to terminate the employee, regardless of the rebuttal.” The court also noted that comments within the rebuttal, for instance, threats of violence, may provide grounds for termination.

Seemingly, terminating an employee after the employee participates in the statutory rebuttal procedure is rife with risk.