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Massachusetts At-Will Employment Doctrine and Retaliatory Discharge

A recent unpublished decision by the Massachusetts Appeals Court highlights the treatment of the at-will employment doctrine in Massachusetts. See Nelson v. Anika Therapeutics, Inc., et al., 2012-P-0361 (memorandum and order pursuant to Rule 1:28, April 22, 2013).

Plaintiff was a quality control manager at a medical device company and claimed she had been wrongfully terminated. A routine inspection by the FDA resulted in a warning letter which stated the company was in violation of several federal regulations which required corrective action. Employer alleged Plaintiff was fired as a direct response to the failures identified in the FDA inspection, many of which were attributable to plaintiff.

Plaintiff was an at-will employee. Under Massachusetts law, employment at-will can be terminated for any reason or for no reason. There are several recognized exceptions to this rule including when employment is terminated contrary to a well defined public policy. Firing an employee for enforcing safety regulations for which she was responsible has been held to meet that exception.

In response to the FDA warning letter, plaintiff stated she requested additional staffing in addition to communications aimed at fixing the violations found by the FDA. Plaintiff argued these actions should fall into the public policy exception described above.

The trial court held that plaintiff's request for additional staff was merely a disagreement with company policy. The trial court then granted summary judgment for the employer because plaintiff's conduct did not implicate public policy and thus was not within the realm of the public policy exception regarding whistleblowers.

The Appeals Court agreed with the trial court's ruling. Massachusetts law does not protect at-will employees who claim to be fired for their complaints about internal company policies or the violation of company rules. There is a distinction between actions taken to enforce safety regulations and actions taken as a result of a disagreement with company policy, even if the employee's actions may be considered appropriate and socially desirable.

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