Be Careful When Stating the Reason for Terminating an Employee

By: Geoffrey B. McCullough, Esq.

Question:  When an employer misstates the reasons for terminating an at-will employee is the misstatement a violation of public policy?

Answer:  If the termination “fall[s] within the scope of any of the recognized categories of public policy exceptions[,]” yes  In Massachusetts a general rule is non-union employees are employees-at-will and may be terminated at any time.  Exceptions to that rule are when the termination is unlawful, for example, when the termination is discriminatory or when the termination violates public policy.

The quotation above is taken from a public policy claim discussed in a March 12, 2014, Order of the U.S. District Court in the case Rosie Burgos v. GCA Services Group, Inc., (Lawyers Weekly No. 02-141-14) (O’Toole, J.) (USDC) (C.A. No. 12-11147-GAO).  In the case, Ms. Burgos, claimed her termination violated public policy because she was in fact terminated because her employer wished to reduce the workforce not because she was allegedly insubordinate.  But  her violation-of-public-policy claim failed because even if the employer, GCA Services, terminated her to reduce its workforce, public policy does not protect employees from the negative effects of a reduction in workforce. 

Among the public policy exceptions protecting employees from termination, even in an at-will employment setting, are those terminations which violate legally protected rights such as to be free of discrimination, termination due to the employees’ refusal to break the law, or when an employee cooperates with a law enforcement investigation of the employer. Protection from a reduction in workforce is a not a legally recognized public policy.  Even if the stated reason for termination is not the real reason, termination does not violate public policy if the real reason does “not fall within the scope of any of the recognized categories of public policy exception.” Id.  Ms. Burgos’s case was dismissed.

 

The Employment Law attorneys at the Beliveau Law Group provides legal services for employment, labor, and litigation needs. The law firm has offices and attorneys in Naples, Florida; Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Danvers, Massachusetts; Waltham, Massachusetts; Quincy, Massachusetts; Manchester, New Hampshire and Salem, New Hampshire.