- Employees who work without the benefit of an employment contract are employed "at-will." An employer may discharge an at-will employee at any time for any reason that is not contrary to statute or that is not inconsistent with any representation that the employer has made to the employee. In general, "employment at will can be terminated for any reason or for no reason." Harrison v. NetCentric Corp., 433 Mass. 465, 478 (2001)
- One exception to the "at-will" doctrine is the contractual claim of an "implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing." Every contract contains an implied duty of good faith and fair dealing including contracts terminable at-will. Smith-Pfeffer v. Superintendent of the Walter E. Fernald State School., 404 Mass. 145, 149-150 (1989); Gram v. Liberty Mutual Insurance Co., 384 Mass. 659, 668 n. 6 (1981); Fortune v. National Cash Register Co. , 373 Mass. 96, 100-104 (1977)
- A discharged employee has a claim for a bad faith termination of an at-will employment contract if he can show that:
- the discharge involved an intent by an employer to benefit financially at the employee's expense, such as for the purpose of retaining for itself sales commissions which would otherwise be due to the employee; or
- "employment is terminated contrary to a well-defined public policy." Wright v. Shriners Hosp. for Crippled Children, 412 Mass. 469, 472 (1992). In carving out these exceptions, the courts have emphasized that the public policy exception should be narrowly construed to avoid converting the general at-will rule into "a rule that requires just cause to terminate an at-will employee." King v. Driscoll, 418 Mass. 576, 582 (1994).
- More specifically, the public policy exception to at-will employment has been recognized for asserting a legally guaranteed right (e.g., filing a workers' compensation claim), for doing what the law requires (e.g., serving on a jury), or for refusing to do that which the law forbids (e.g., committing perjury). Smith-Pfeffer v. Superintendent of the Walter E. Fernald State School, 404 Mass. 145, 149-150 (1989).
- To qualify as an exception to the general rule, the public policy must be well defined, important, and preferably embodied in a textual law source. Mello v. Stop & Shop Cos., 402 Mass. 555, 557 (1988); Ryan v. Holie Donut, Inc., 82 Mass. App. Ct. 633, 636 (2012). On the other hand, the internal administration, policy, functioning, and other matters of an organization cannot be the basis for a public policy exception to the general rule that at-will employees are terminable at any time with or without cause. King v. Driscoll, 418 Mass. 576, 583 (1994).
- In addition to these three categories, the SJC subsequently created a fourth category to protect those "performing important public deeds, even though the law does not absolutely require the performance of such a deed." Flesner v. Technical Communications Corp., 410 Mass. 805, 810-811 (1991). Such deeds include, for example, cooperating with an ongoing criminal investigation. Id.
- The SJC has also stated that "the internal administration, policy, functioning, and other matters of an organization cannot be the basis for a public policy exception to the general rule that at-will employees are terminable at any time with or without cause." King, 418 Mass. at 583 (employee not wrongfully terminated in violation of public policy where he participated in shareholder derivative action). As a further illustration of this point, in Wright, 412 Mass. at 474, a plaintiff nurse reported internal problems to high-level hospital officials and thereafter was terminated. The SJC determined that because the nurse's reports concerned the organization's internal matters, there was no basis for a public policy exception to the at-will termination rule. Id. at 475. See Upton v. JWP Businessland, 425 Mass. 756, 758 (1997) (no liability for discharge stemming from employer requiring employee to work overtime, even though such schedule interfered with employee's childcare responsibilities); Mello v. Stop & Shop Cos., 402 Mass. 555, 558 n.3, 560-561 (1988) (no public policy violated where employee fired for reporting noncriminal wrongdoing by other employees.
- In determining whether to create a common-law public policy exception to employment at will, the SJC also considers whether the Legislature has prescribed a remedy for the public policy violation at issue, including a remedy for a discharge of the employee for exercising that right. See Osborne-Trussell v. Children's Hosp. Corp., 488 Mass. 248, 265 (2021).
- In Meehan v. Medical Information Technology Inc., No. SJC-13117, __ Mass. __ (2021), the SJC held that a termination of employment for a violation of M. G. L. c. 149,s. 52C, constituted a public policy exception to at-will employment. The statutory right of rebuttal provided in M. G. L. c. 149, s. 52C, is a legally guaranteed right of employment, and therefore termination from employment for the exercise of this legally guaranteed right fits within the first public policy exception to employment at will.
- Another way in which an employee can avoid the "at will" status is by arguing that he has a contract of employment based upon an employee manual or an employer policy statement.
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