If you work for a company in Massachusetts and you do not have a contract for a specified period of time at a particular wage rate, then you are considered an employee at will. What does this mean? Well, it is quite simple, your employer can fire you for any reason or no reason at all, so long as the reason is not an unlawful reason for termination. There are really only two reasons that fall under this unlawful characterization; first, you can not be fired due to your status in some protected class. Should you be fired as a result of your membership in a protected class that would be deemed employment discrimination and any termination could be improper. Second, you can not be fired because you complain about the company doing something illegal, or for refusing to do something your boss asked you to do that is against the law.
The first type of wrongful termination in Massachusetts is based upon anti-discrimination laws, or the Massachusetts Fair Employment Practices Act. Under this law, you can not be singled out as a result of your race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, or due to some handicap either mental or physical unless the discrimination is based upon a bona fide occupational qualification required for the specific job.
COMPLAINING ABOUT ILLEGAL CONDUCT OF THE COMPANY
The second type of wrongful termination in Massachusetts is based upon the whistle blower laws. More specifically, it is not permitted to fire an employee when the employee’s termination would violate a public policy. Upton v. JWP Businessland, 425 Mass. 756, 757 (1997) (and cases cited therein). An employer may violate public policy when it terminates an employee who was performing an important public deed. This is true even where the law does not require that the employee perform the public deed. As such, the courts have recognized that one such important public deed is whistle-blowing or complaining about the unlawful conduct of the company. Thus, so long as the employee acted in good faith and with a reasonable belief of the threat of harm to the public, he engaged in protected activity. In short, an at-will employee may not be fired for reporting circumstances that the employee reasonably and in good faith believes violate our public safety laws and present a threat to the public safety. Even internal reporting (i.e. to a corporate superior) will suffice in a public policy case. Additionally, “[r]edress is available for employees who are terminated for asserting a legally protected guaranteed right (e.g. filing 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).” Wright v. Shriners Hosp. for Crippled Children, 412 Mass. 469, 472 (1992).
The law is actually quite simple with respect to whistle blowing. In order to prove a claim for wrongful termination in violation of public policy, the employee must demonstrate that: (1) she expressed concern relative to a matter of public policy; (2) she suffered adverse action; and (3) a causal relation exists between her protected activity and the adverse action.
In addition to having a claim for wrongful termination due to discrimination, an employee man also have a valid claim for retaliation in response to asserting a right to stop the discrimination before it is too late. In Massachusetts, retaliation is a separate and distinct cause of action from discrimination. Therefore, a Plaintiff does not even need to win on their discrimination claim in order to prevail upon a retaliation claim that is based upon the same set of facts as the discrimination claim. Accordingly, to prevail on a claim for retaliation, a former employee must show: (1) he engaged in protected activity; (2) he suffered adverse employment action; and (3) a causal connections between his protected activity and the adverse employment actions he suffered Mole v. Univ. of Mass., 442 Mass. 582, 591-92 (2004).
Where adverse action follows very closely in time to complaining about either discrimination or some other unlawful conduct of the employer, an inference of causation may arise. As a matter of fact, the Court in the Mole case held, (“[I]f adverse action is taken against a satisfactorily performing employee in the immediate aftermath of the employer’s becoming aware of the employee’s protected activity, an inference of causation is permissible.”).
While all of the information in this blog post does suggest certain things that you might look at to determine whether you as a former employee were wrongfully terminated from your job, it is important to note that each and every case is very fact specific and you really do want to speak to an experienced employment discrimination lawyer in your state about the details of your situation to properly analyze whether you have a claim or not. As with all cases, the law is not black and white, but there is a lot of gray shades that need to be considered and you should consult with a lawyer as soon as possible, because your time is very limited in most cases 300 days or less from the day you were fired.