Flesner v. Technical Communications Corp.

Decision Date08 August 1991
Citation410 Mass. 805,575 N.E.2d 1107
CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts Supreme Court

Richard L. Neumeier (Paul M. Moretti with him), Boston, for plaintiff.

D. Alice Olsen (Thomas M. Elcock with her), Boston, for defendants.


ABRAMS, Justice.

Jeffrey Flesner claims that his former employer, Technical Communications Corporation (TCC), constructively discharged him in retaliation for his cooperation in a United States Customs Service investigation of TCC. A Superior Court judge awarded summary judgment in favor of TCC. Flesner now appeals, contending that the judge erred in dismissing his claims for (1) wrongful discharge; (2) misrepresentation; (3) invasion of privacy; and (4) violation of the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act, G.L. c. 12, § 11I (1990 ed.). In addition, the defendants claim that Flesner is precluded from recovering damages by his own misrepresentations. We transferred the case to this court on our own motion. We reverse the summary judgment on the wrongful discharge and misrepresentation claims. We affirm on the other claims.

From the materials submitted to the court in conjunction with the summary judgment motion, the undisputed facts are as follows. TCC is a Massachusetts corporation that produces, develops, and sells internationally communications systems, including communications security systems. Arnold McCalmont and his son, James McCalmont, also defendants, are president and sales manager, respectively. Flesner worked as a salesman for TCC from January 31, 1983, until his resignation on September 1, 1983.

Flesner planned a sales trip to Argentina in July, 1983, to demonstrate certain TCC security equipment to potential buyers. He claims that before he left he repeatedly asked James McCalmont whether a temporary export license was needed to transport the equipment to Argentina. McCalmont told Flesner that because he was only demonstrating the equipment rather than making a permanent sale, no such license was required. At the time, TCC had applied for a temporary export license for Argentina but the application was returned with no action taken.

On the date of departure, Flesner was met at Logan International Airport in Boston by a TCC employee who delivered the equipment to Flesner and handed him a manila envelope containing Customs documents. Flesner checked the equipment through to Argentina. At a stopover in Miami, Flesner was detained by Customs officials. He handed them the documents that TCC had provided him in the manila envelope, but they did not satisfy the officials. The officials told Flesner that if he did not cooperate, he would be handcuffed and arrested on the spot. Flesner said he would cooperate. The officials further questioned Flesner for approximately two and one half hours about TCC's business, and Flesner's planned Argentina trip. Afterward, he was told to return to Boston the next day, but the equipment was seized.

When Flesner arrived back at Logan, he was met by other Customs officials who also told him that he would not be arrested or handcuffed if he cooperated. Again, he was questioned intensively. The officials instructed Flesner not to tell TCC that he was cooperating with them unless asked directly. They then released him. Later that night, Flesner met with the McCalmonts and Herman Wolz, another TCC employee, to relate the events of the past two days. He did not tell them, because they did not ask, that he was cooperating with Customs.

The Customs agents met with Flesner several times after the incident to ask further questions. They also interviewed Arnold McCalmont. At one point, Flesner was summoned to a meeting with Arnold McCalmont and TCC's lawyer at which Flesner informed them that he was cooperating with Customs. The lawyer advised Flesner that they might become adversaries and that Flesner should watch what he said to them.

Flesner claims that the employer-employee relationship deteriorated thereafter. He asserts that he was forbidden to travel until the investigation was cleared up, and that he was not allowed to telephone or telex potential customers. All of his correspondence was to be reviewed by Wolz, and little, if any, of it was approved for mailing. Because he was denied access to his customers, he asserts that he was prevented from making sales or earning commissions, although he had not made any sales prior to the incident either.

On August 31, 1983, Flesner told Arnold McCalmont and Wolz that he had met with Customs agents the previous week. Wolz told Flesner to inform them of any further contacts with Customs. Later, Flesner asked Wolz about his future with TCC. Wolz's response was not positive. He told Flesner that he should resign so that he could receive two weeks' severance pay or he would be fired the next day. On September 1, 1983, Flesner tendered his resignation.

In January, 1985, Flesner filed an eight-count complaint against the defendants. TCC counterclaimed for misrepresentation. In September, 1989, the defendants moved for summary judgment on Flesner's claims. 2 On September 27, 1989, the judge allowed the motion except as to the counts for misrepresentation, wrongful discharge, and negligence. In October, he allowed the motion for all counts, and filed a memorandum of decision explaining his order. Flesner appeals the order as to five of those counts.

1. Motion for summary judgment. In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, "a judge ... must consider 'the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any,' in determining whether summary judgment is appropriate. Mass.R.Civ.P. 56(c), 365 Mass. 824 (1974). The burden on the moving party is to 'show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.' Id." Madsen v. Erwin, 395 Mass. 715, 719 481 N.E.2d 1160 (1985). This burden need not be met by affirmative evidence negating an essential element of the plaintiff's case, but may be satisfied by demonstrating that proof of that element is unlikely to be forthcoming at trial. See Kourouvacilis v. General Motors Corp., 410 Mass. 706, 575 N.E.2d 734 (1991).

Where a moving party properly asserts that there is no genuine issue of material fact, "the judge must ask himself not whether he thinks the evidence unmistakably favors one side or the other but whether a fair-minded jury could return a verdict for the plaintiff on the evidence presented." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 252, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 2512, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). A judge's mere belief that the movant is more likely to prevail at trial is not a sufficient basis for granting summary judgment. See Byrd v. Roadway Express, Inc., 687 F.2d 85, 87 (5th Cir.1982); American Int'l Group v. London Am. Int'l Corp. Ltd., 664 F.2d 348, 351 (2d Cir.1981). 10A C. Wright, A. Miller, & M. Kane, Federal Practice and Procedure § 2725, at 104-105 (1983).

In cases where motive, intent, or other state of mind questions are at issue, summary judgment is often inappropriate. See Pederson v. Time, Inc., 404 Mass. 14, 17, 532 N.E.2d 1211 (1989) ("the generally accepted rule is that the 'granting of summary judgment in a case where a party's state of mind ... constitutes an essential element of the cause of action is disfavored' "), quoting Quincy Mut. Fire Ins. Co. v. Abernathy, 393 Mass. 81, 86, 469 N.E.2d 797 (1984). See also Sweat v. Miller Brewing Co., 708 F.2d 655, 657 (11th Cir.1983); Baldini v. Local 1095, UAW, 581 F.2d 145, 151 (7th Cir.1978). 10A C. Wright, A. Miller, & M. Kane, supra at § 2730. In such cases, "[m]uch depends on the credibility of the witnesses testifying as to their own states of mind. In these circumstances, the jury should be given an opportunity to observe the demeanor, during direct and cross-examination, of the witnesses whose states of mind are at issue." Croley v. Matson Navigation Co., 434 F.2d 73, 77 (5th Cir.1971).

With these principles in mind, we consider the merits of Flesner's arguments.

2. Wrongful discharge. Flesner claims that TCC constructively discharged him in violation of public policy because of his cooperation with the Customs officials. We have recognized an exception to the traditional doctrine that at-will employees may be discharged for any reason or no reason at all, where the discharge is for reasons that violate public policy. See DeRose v. Putnam Management Co., Inc., 398 Mass. 205, 496 N.E.2d 428 (1986). We have held, for example, that a cause of action will lie when an employee is fired for disobeying the employer's instruction to testify falsely at a trial, see id., or for enforcing safety regulations for which she was responsible, see Hobson v. McLean Hosp. Corp., 402 Mass. 413, 522 N.E.2d 975 (1988).

In Smith-Pfeffer v. Superintendent of the Walter E. Fernald State School, 404 Mass. 145, 149-150, 533 N.E.2d 1368 (1989), we stated that redress is available for employees who are terminated "for asserting a legally 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)." Flesner claims he was discharged for cooperating with the Customs officials. The law did not require him to cooperate; he had the right to remain silent. Nevertheless, it is the public policy of this Commonwealth to encourage cooperation with ongoing criminal investigations. See, e.g., G.L. c. 262, § 29 (1990 ed.) (providing compensation and travel costs reimbursement for any person who attends the attorney general or the offices of a district attorney for the purpose of assisting an investigation); G.L. c. 233, § 20D (1990 ed.) (permitting a grant...

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