Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Rules Termination of Employee for Filing a Personnel File Rebuttal May Support a Claim for Wrongful Termination

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has issued a unanimous opinion in Meehan v. Medical Information Technology, Inc., holding that the termination of an at-will employee for exercising the statutory right of rebuttal to information included in their personnel record fell within the public policy exception to employment-at-will.

The Opinion can be found here.


The Personnel Records Law in Massachusetts, MGL c. 149, § 52C (the "Law"), requires employers to inform employees within ten days of any information added to their personnel record that "negatively affect[s] the employee's qualification for employment, promotion, transfer, additional compensation or the possibility that the employee will be subject to disciplinary action." If a disagreement occurs between the employer and employee about such information, and they cannot agree to correct or remove the contested information, the employee may prepare a written rebuttal statement to be included in the employee's personnel record.

Plaintiff, Terence Meehan, was an employee-at-will of the defendant, Medical Information Technology, Inc. (Meditech). Following a transition to a new role, Meditech placed Meehan on a performance improvement plan (PIP). Under the authority of the Law, Meehan wrote a rebuttal to the PIP to be included in his personnel file. That day, members of Meditech's management met to discuss Meehan's rebuttal and terminated Meehan's employment immediately.

Meehan filed a one-count complaint against Meditech in Superior Court alleging that Meditech wrongfully terminated him in violation of public policy when it discharged him for submitting a rebuttal to the PIP. Meditech moved to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim. The Superior Court granted the motion to dismiss, finding that the public policy exception to the general rule that an employee-at-will may be terminated without cause does not include termination for filing a rebuttal. The Superior Court reasoned that the statutory right was "not a sufficiently important public policy" because it only related to "matters internal to an employer's operation." The motion judge also expressed concern that if any employee who submitted a written statement disagreeing with any information in a personnel record was protected from termination, this would convert the at-will employment rule into one for "just cause." Meehan appealed, and the Appeals Court affirmed. The SJC granted further review.


The SJC began by acknowledging that an at-will employee can be terminated for any reason or for no reason at all. Courts have recognized limited exceptions to this general rule, including when an employee is terminated contrary to a well-defined public policy. Courts narrowly construe this public policy exception to avoid converting the general at-will rule into a rule that requires "just cause."

Here, the Court concluded that the statutory right of rebuttal is a legally guaranteed right of employment and that the state legislature has already, in enacting the Law, concluded that the right is a matter of public significance. A further examination of the importance of the policy at issue was therefore deemed unnecessary. Moreover, because the Law does not provide a remedy for an adverse employment action in response to the exercise of the right, a wrongful discharge action complements the remedial scheme provided by statute.

The Court also held the fact that an employee may appear "intemperate" or "contentious" in expressing their rebuttal cannot be grounds for termination. The Court reminded employers and employees that "the express purpose of the rebuttal provision is to give employees an opportunity to respond to information in their personnel files that 'has been used or may be used ... to negatively affect' them."

Finally, the Court addressed the concern that an employee could write whatever they want in a rebuttal, which would then serve as a barrier to termination. The Court disagreed, stating, "[t]he 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." Additionally, although a rebuttal is a protected activity, such protection from termination "does not extend to threats of personal violence, abuse, or similarly egregious responses if they are included in the rebuttal."

Accepting that Meditech fired Meehan for merely filing the rebuttal, the Court reversed the Superior Court's order of dismissal, finding that Meehan could bring a wrongful discharge claim for being terminated for exercising his statutory right of rebuttal to information included in his personnel record.

Takeaway for Employers 

An employer may not fire an at-will employee solely for filing a rebuttal in a personnel file. To do so may constitute a wrongful discharge in violation of public policy.

Massachusetts employers who are subject to the Law should ensure that all human resources personnel, managers, and supervisors are aware of their obligations under the Law and the associated protections for employees against wrongful discharge. The Law provides a limited remedy for violating the act—a fine between $500 and $2,500. However, the SJC's decision allows a plaintiff to maintain a common-law wrongful discharge action, which could be far more costly.

For the full text of the statute, click here.


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