In a recent decision, Terence Meehan v. Medical Information Technology, Inc., the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that an employer cannot terminate an employee for exercising the right to file a rebuttal to a performance improvement plan (“PIP”) to be included in the employee’s personnel file.
Background: The Massachusetts Personnel Records Law
The Massachusetts Personnel Records Law, M.G.L. c. 149, §52C (the “PR Law”), defines what must be included in a “personnel record” as well as other employer obligations and employee rights concerning personnel record access, challenges to content, and retention. For example, under the PR Law employees have the right, upon written request, to review their personnel records during normal business hours and/or to obtain a copy of their records.
Of importance in Meehan, an employee also has the right to challenge information contained in his or her personnel record. An employee may request that the information be removed or corrected. If the employer refuses the request, the PR Law gives the employee the right to submit a written statement explaining the employee’s position. In relevant part, the PR Law provides as follows:
An employer shall notify an employee within 10 days of the employer placing in the employee’s personnel record any information... that... negatively affect[s] the employee’s qualification for employment... or the possibility that the employee will be subject to disciplinary action.
If there is a disagreement with any information contained in a personnel record, removal or correction of such information may be mutually agreed upon by the employer and the employee. If an agreement is not reached, the employee may submit a written statement explaining the employee’s position which shall thereupon be contained therein and shall become a part of such employee’s personnel record.
Before Meehan, an employee’s recourse against an employer for violating the PR Law generally was limited to filing a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office.
Facts of Meehan
Terence Meehan was employed by Medical Information Technology, Inc. (“Meditech”) as a sales representative. Unhappy with Meehan’s performance, Meditech placed him on a PIP. A few weeks later, Meehan submitted a lengthy rebuttal to the PIP to his supervisor. This prompted members of Meditech’s management team to meet on the same day. At the meeting, Meditech decided to discharge Meehan immediately.
After he was discharged, Meehan filed a one-count complaint in Superior Court asserting wrongful termination. Meehan claimed he was discharged because he had submitted a rebuttal, utilizing the mechanism outlined in G. L. c. 149, § 52C, to the PIP on which he had been placed. Meehan claimed that his discharge was wrongful and violated public policy because he had asserted a legally protected right under G. L. c. 149, § 52C. No prior case had recognized such a claim for an at-will employee, who generally can be terminated for any or no reason.
The Superior Court dismissed Meehan’s claim and the Appeals Court upheld that decision because Meehan’s conduct had never before been recognized to fall under the limited public policy exception to the at-will employment doctrine.
However, the SJC reviewed the case to determine whether an employee’s right under the PR Law to rebut documents in a personnel file creates a public policy that is “sufficiently well defined and important such that the exercise of that right brings an employee within the public policy exception to the general rule that an at-will employee may be terminated without cause.” The SJC decided the case for Meehan and held that an employee’s discharge merely for submitting a PIP rebuttal would violate public policy.
Takeaway for Employers
After Meehan, employers should tread carefully in responding to an employee’s exercise of rights under the personnel records law, including an employee’s submission of a rebuttal to performance criticism and a request to inspect or copy a personnel file. Although Meehan does not protect employees from discharge if they continue to engage in misconduct or poor performance that was the subject of a PIP, employers must realize that employees exercising their rights under the PR Law now have a new claim to assert if they are discharged close in time to such activity. As such, it is important for employers to have corroborating documentation supporting adverse employment actions taken after an employee’s exercise of rights. A consequence of Meehan may be that more employers will simply discharge underperforming employees instead of using PIPs, which an employee can now rebut and, by doing so, gain legally protected status.