The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) has recently ruled that an employer may not terminate an employee for the exercise of rights under Massachusetts General Law Chapter 149 Section 52C, otherwise known as the Massachusetts Personnel Records Law (“MPRL”).  An employer who terminates an employee for doing so will be liable for wrongful termination in violation of public policy, a common law claim that constitutes one of the major exceptions to the “at-will” nature of most employment agreements in the Commonwea

The MPRL requires notification to an employee within 10 days of the employer “placing in the employee’s personnel record any information…that negatively affects the employee’s qualification for employment, promotion, transfer, additional compensation or the possibility that the employee will be subject to disciplinary action…”  The law also expressly grants the employee the right to submit a written rebuttal explaining their position with respect to negative entries placed in their personnel file.  Additionally, employers of 20 or more employee are required to maintain the personnel records of each employee until the later of (i) three years from the date of employee termination or (ii) the final disposition of any legal or administrative proceedings brought by the employee against the employer. 

In Meehan v. Medical Information Technology, Inc., the plaintiff alleged that he had been terminated for submitting a lengthy written rebuttal in response to a written Performance Improvement Plan (“PIP”) that the defendant had issued him two weeks earlier.  He filed suit alleging a single claim for wrongful termination in violation of public policy, arguing that his right under c. 149 § 52C to file a written rebuttal to the PIP constituted the applicable public policy.  His employer moved to dismiss the suit, arguing that the statutory right to rebuttal was not a sufficiently important enough public policy to garner protection under the common law theory of wrongful termination.  A justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court agreed and dismissed the suit.  The Superior Court’s decision was affirmed by the Massachusetts Appeals Court before the case made its way to the SJC.

In reversing the Appeals Court, the SJC broadly ruled that statutory employment rights such as those set forth in the MPRL necessarily bear on matters of public significance as identified by the Legislature.  The SJC further clarified that, in common law claims for wrongful termination, trial courts need only analyze the employee’s conduct for its “importance” to the public when that conduct is not expressly protected or required by law (for example, an employee’s voluntary cooperation with an ongoing police investigation into his or her employer).  

Although the plaintiff in Meehan alleged that he was terminated merely for submitting his rebuttal, the SJC provided some “precautionary guidance” to employers left questioning whether a termination may be justified based on the tone or content of the rebuttal.  The Court noted that employee rebuttal statements should be expected to “involve disputed, contentious subjects and vehement disagreement,” and that “the exercise and expression of the right to rebuttal should not be grounds for termination when it is directed at explaining the employee’s position regarding disagreement with information contained in the personnel record, no matter how intemperate and contentious the expression in the rebuttal.”  Indeed, the only type of content that the Meehan court expressly contemplates as falling outside the protection of c. 149 § 52C is “threats of personal violence [or] abuse.”

To say that the SJC’s decision in Meehan puts teeth into MPRL would be an understatement.  A genuine issue of fact as to whether an employee’s termination violated Massachusetts public policy will now present itself any time that the employee in question has requested their personnel file or submitted a personnel file rebuttal statement in close proximity  to the date of termination.  Employers would be well-advised to conduct a review of personnel file activity and consult with employment counsel concerning any questions related thereto prior to issuing termination notices in wake of the Meehan decision.