On July 15, 2020, the Massachusetts Appeals Court affirmed a Superior Court decision allowing the Defendants’ motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) with respect to the Plaintiff’s employment-based claims stemming from an alleged constructive discharge brought against Lowell General Hospital and the Plaintiff’s supervisors. Kelleher v. Lowell General Hospital, 96 Mass. App. Ct. 49 (2020). The Plaintiff’s complaint involved allegations of: (1) constructive discharge; (2) defamation; (3) intentional interference with advantageous business relations; (4) intentional infliction of emotional distress; and (5) breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing.

The Plaintiff claimed that she endured months of intolerable working conditions at Lowell General Hospital, which she described as “daily, unprovoked angry and humiliating outbursts” and that these conditions ultimately led to her resignation, which constituted constructive discharge. The Plaintiff identified three specific occurrences in which she was berated or humiliated by her supervisor in front of co-workers and patients. Two of the instances were connected to scheduling issues and the last outburst was in response to Plaintiff’s inability to help her supervisor with a patient because she was busy with her own work. The third incident involved Plaintiff’s supervisor allegedly shouting “you never help!” in front of patients and co-workers.

Constructive discharge does not constitute a distinct cause of action under Massachusetts law, but can be an element of a viable wrongful termination employment claim stemming from a well-defined public policy or a contractual right. The Plaintiff was an “at-will employee,” defined as an employment relationship in which either the employer or employee may terminate the employment at any time without cause, for any reason, except for a reason proscribed by statute or public policy. M.G.L. c. 151B et seq.; Fortune v. National Cash Register Co., 373 Mass. 96, 101 (1977); Wright v. Shriners Hosp. for Crippled Children, 412 Mass. 469, 472 (1992). Well-established Massachusetts law, continually affirmed by Massachusetts appellate courts, demonstrates that an at-will employee can be terminated at any time “for almost any reason or for no reason at all.”[1]

The Plaintiff’s defamation claim failed because the two statements described in the Plaintiff’s complaint, consisting of “you never help!” and “I’m done with her,” were found to be either a subjective state of mind or “rhetorical hyperbole,” that cannot be reasonably understood to be a statement of actual fact or one that implies defamatory facts. A viable defamation claim requires a plaintiff to show that: (1) a false statement was made to a third party; (2) of and concerning the plaintiff; that (3) is capable of damaging plaintiff’s reputation in the community; and (4) either caused plaintiff economic loss or is actionable without proof of economic loss.

The elements of a claim for intentional tortious interference with advantageous business relations are: (1) the plaintiff had a contract or advantageous business relationship with a third party; (2) the defendant knowingly induced the third party to break the contract or to forego the business relations; (3) the defendant’s interference was improper in motive or means; and (4) the plaintiff was harmed by the interference. In the case of an at will-employee making such a claim under Massachusetts law against a supervising employee, a plaintiff is also required to prove that the supervisor acted with actual malice and that the malice was the “controlling factor” in defendant’s conduct. Additionally, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant’s purpose was unrelated to any corporate interest. The Appeals Court in Kelleher noted that the three instances described by Plaintiff all arose out of work-related issues and the Plaintiff failed to allege specific facts that the individual defendants acted with actual malice.

Finally, the Court disposed of Plaintiff’s claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress and breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing with little discussion. The Plaintiff made no argument in support of her claim for breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing. As for the intentional infliction of emotional distress claim, the Court noted that the actions alleged “are not different in kind from many actions encountered in the workplace that while regrettable, are a not uncommon expression of the human condition.”

The Plaintiff’s claims arose from conduct that is considered typical workplace bullying and while the conduct was not considered unlawful by the Massachusetts Appeals Court, the decision should not be interpreted by employers to afford some false sense of security moving forward. Anti-bullying statutes have been enacted in schools nationwide and there have been multiple bills proposed in the Massachusetts’ legislature over the past decade seeking to make workplace bullying and harassment unlawful without regard to protected class status. Most recently, the Senate Committee on Labor and Workforce Development referred Bill S.1072 “An Act Addressing Workplace Bullying, Mobbing and Harassment, Without Regard to Protected Class Status” favorably to the Senate Committee on Ways and Means.

As currently written, the Bill would create a private right of action for abusive conduct and an abusive work environment. Trends suggest that such a bill eventually might be codified into law in Massachusetts. If such a bill is eventually passed through the Massachusetts’ legislature, the “regrettable . . . not uncommon expression the human condition” described by the Kelleher Court, might evolve into unlawful workplace behavior and subject employers to significant damages. Employers are cautioned to address this type of behavior that traditionally was considered commonplace through training and the implementation of policies in advance of such a law not only to avoid litigation costs and damages, but also to create a healthy environment that fosters growth and open dialogue free from abuse of any kind.

 

[1] See Wright, 412 Mass. at 472; Kyle v. Massachusetts General Hosp., 61 Mass. App. Ct. 1118 (2004); Bennett v. Abiomed, Inc., 2020 WL 1429847, *9 (D. Mass. Mar. 24, 2020).