Wrongful Employment Termination Laws in MA

AttorneyStark[1]By: Attorney Timothy Stark – August, 2014

For this week’s column, I thought I would discuss some specific Massachusetts laws that make an involuntary termination from employment unlawful in Massachusetts. Please keep in mind, however, that as a general rule, Massachusetts is an employment at will state. Therefore many involuntary terminations, even though unfair, are still lawful. In previous columns, I have described at some length the harshness of the employment at will doctrine and, thus, will not include it as part of this column.

Massachusetts General Law Chapter 152, sect. 75B(2) prohibits employers from discharging or otherwise discriminating against an employee for exercising rights under the Worker’s Compensation act. An interesting exception within this statute, however, is that this law does not apply to employees who are subject to an inconsistent collective bargaining agreement. What this means is that if the employee is in a union, and the union contract states that arbitration is the sole remedy for an employee termination, then the union contract will “preempt” the Massachusetts law. Nonetheless, if in fact the employee can show that they were indeed terminated because of the worker’s compensation claim they should still win their case of wrongful termination.

Massachusetts General Law Chapter 268,sect.14A makes it unlawful for an employer to terminate an employee for serving on a jury. Indeed, a secondary authority on this issue provides a terminated employee with a specific civil remedy, as well as subjecting the employer to criminal charges.

In previous columns, I have discussed wrongful terminations based upon an employer refusing to pay the employee previously earned income, as well as providing the employee the right to treble damages for the wages, reasonable attorney fees (admittedly an oxymoron), and interest.

A Federal statute, the “Occupational Safety and Health Act” (OSHA), section 11c prohibits the employer from discharging an employee for exercising his/her rights under the OSHA law. Massachusetts has a law with similar provisions, known as “The Right-to-know Law,” which also has a non-retaliatory provision.

There are additional similar protections under Massachusetts case law, known as the Flesner doctrine (named after the plaintiff in the particular case) that provide employees with remedies for terminations for cooperating with law enforcement agencies, as well as for “Whistle-Blower” actions where employees are terminated for reporting unlawful conduct by their employer. In 1994 the legislature passed a law that provided specific remedies for public employees who engage in whistle blowing against their agency. There is also a “Public Policy Doctrine” in Massachusetts, derived from the State Constitution, that also provides employees with protection from wrongful terminations in which they report employer practices that would be considered in the “public’s interest” to be aware of.

Also, as discussed in previous columns, Massachusetts has rigorously enforced anti-discriminatory laws that provide rights to employees who are involuntarily terminated as a result of what is called a “protected class.” The descriptions of these classes can be found under Massachusetts General Laws chapter 151b, and are usually enforced at the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination.

The above laws are only some of the provisions that protect employees from wrongful terminations, and are not intended to be all-inclusive. Also, in order to determine if a particular set of circumstances falls within any of these laws, it is a good idea to check with an attorney who focuses on employment law.