Massachusetts Appeals Courts Affirms Summary Judgment Victory for MGH in Lopez v. Massachusetts General Hospital
Posted on: Friday, June 30th, 2017
On June 14, 2017, following an appellate effort led by Jay Sullivan, Patrick Foley, and Matthew Wahrer of Holtz & Reed, the Massachusetts Appeals Court issued its decision in Lopez v. Massachusetts General Hospital, et al., affirming the Superior Court’s allowance of MGH’s motion for summary judgment on all counts of the plaintiff’s complaint. The decision serves as a stark reminder to the plaintiff’s bar that the at-will employment doctrine still has meaning, making public-policy wrongful termination claims difficult to win. The decision also reminds employers faced with defamation claims that they should not be held liable for communications about disciplined or terminated employees that are reasonably necessary to serve their legitimate business interests.
The underlying case arose when the plaintiff, an at-will hospital employee, was terminated for passing a counterfeit bill in a hospital café and later refusing to cooperate with the investigation into the bill’s origin conducted by MGH Police. Alleging various grievances about the manner in which the hospital undertook these actions, the plaintiff filed claims against MGH for defamation, intentional interference with contractual relations, and wrongful termination in violation of public policy (based on her mistaken belief that cooperating with MGH’s investigation and identifying the patients who had given her Christmas cards, one of which included the counterfeit bill, would have required her to violate the HIPAA Privacy Rule).
On December 17, 2015, MGH prevailed on its motion for summary judgment in the Superior Court, resulting in the dismissal of all claims against it. (See story here.)
On appeal, the plaintiff contended that the motion judge (Lauriat, J.) erroneously disregarded disputed material facts relating to her claims for wrongful termination and defamation. Regarding her wrongful termination claim, the Appeals Court held that the plaintiff’s reliance on HIPAA was misguided and that HIPAA regulations expressly allow a covered entity to disclose protected patient information to a law enforcement official where that information constitutes evidence of a crime. Further addressing the fallacy of the plaintiff’s reasoning, the Court explained:
[The plaintiff] contends … that disclosure was not required by law … because the information the investigators were seeking was readily accessible to them in MGH’s records. Specifically, she contends that MGH already knew the patients with whom Lopez worked and did not need her to disclose those names. Lopez cites no case law for this proposition … Moreover, her argument undermines rather than supports her position. Lopez would not have been disclosing to MGH patient information, which … MGH already had. No public purpose would be served by requiring MGH to potentially question all the patients with whom Lopez worked in the OB/GYN department to determine the origin of the counterfeit bill rather than just the three who gave her money.
Regarding the plaintiff’s defamation claim, the Appeals Court held that all of the hospital’s internal communications about the incident in the café, the investigation that followed, and the plaintiff’s termination were either true (and, thus, not defamatory) or conditionally privileged. The Appeals Court further rejected the plaintiff’s attempts to frame every statement made about the incident by a hospital employee as an “unnecessary, unreasonable, or excessive publication,” that might otherwise have resulted in a forfeiture of the conditional privilege.
The decision of the Appeals Court in this case is significant, and noteworthy, for its affirmation of important bedrock principles for employers. As Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly discussed at length in a January 2016 front-page article about Judge Lauriat’s summary judgment ruling, the dispositive result in this case offers a stark reminder to both employers and the plaintiff’s bar alike that:
- Defamation and public-policy wrongful termination claims are difficult to win in the employment context – such claims are often “thrown in as afterthoughts” by jilted former employees, but their “doing that is not an appropriate tactic and is likely not a successful one” (quoting Jay Sullivan);
- The public policy exception to the at-will employment doctrine is far narrower than the plaintiffs’ bar would like to believe and does not stretch so far that an employee’s “reasonable belief” about the law (in this case, HIPAA) will protect an employee from being fired (quoting Evan M. Fray-Witzer, Esq.);
- Despite a growing trend in which employees allege wrongful termination merely on the theory that the employer was “wrong” or “unfair” in its decision to terminate, “the at-will doctrine still has some meaning” (quoting Christine L. Lewis, Esq.); and
- Employers cannot always control the dissemination of information, and while best practices dictate keeping personnel decisions as confidential as possible, the employer should not be held liable for communication that is necessary to sustain its operations: “Here, the court found that employers have a conditional privilege to discuss personnel decisions, and that privilege cannot be lost without some showing of malice” (quoting Christine L. Lewis, Esq.).
(See Eric T. Berkman, “Firing of MGH employee not a public policy breach,” Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, January 4, 2016, p. 1.)
Click here for the Massachusetts Appeals Court’s full decision in this case; and for more information about Holtz & Reed’s appellate practice, please visit here or contact our offices at (617) 720-0501.