Mass.: Employer Not Liable for Misrepresentation

By Diane Cadrain Dec 16, 2014

A Massachusetts employer was not liable for deceit or misrepresentation when it praised an employee’s work, told her she was doing fine and then terminated her, a Massachusetts federal court decided.

Doreen Cagnina started working for Philadelphia Insurance Companies and Maguire Insurance Agency in 1994, consistently receiving positive performance reviews. In 2005 she was promoted to a managerial position with consistent salary and perks.

In the summer of 2010, Cagnina took leave from work under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to care for her adopted son and daughter, at least one of whom had special needs. When her bosses asked about the leave, she said she was uncomfortable around the subject but answered their questions regardless.

By May 2013, the company was noting problems with her work, and gave her a counseling memo setting out her strengths and weaknesses and offering suggestions for improvement. Nevertheless, the same manager who had given her the counseling memo subsequently sent her another message stating that he was "incredibly impressed" with her performance, and another of her bosses told her that the counseling memo did not amount to formal counseling.

Between October, 2013 and April, 2014, Cagnina worked long hours due to understaffing, and was promoted to the position of regional account manager on Jan. 1, 2014. Despite her long hours and hard work, Cagnina took intermittent FMLA leave throughout the final 11 months of her employment due to work-related stress. Eventually, the company terminated her on April 30, 2014.

She sued on a number of bases, including FMLA retaliation and negligent misrepresentation and deceit. The FMLA claim was handled separately from the claims of negligent misrepresentation and deceit. Those the company asked the court to dismiss.

In court, Cagnina claimed that the company falsely stated that any negative feedback in the counseling memo did not constitute formal job counseling, and that no further employment action was anticipated. She also said that praise from her superiors caused her to work overlong hours against the recommendation of her physician.

The company countered that Cagnina was an at-will employee, and as such could not legally build a claim of misrepresentation or deceit on an employer's positive performance feedback or statements about job security.

To make out a good claim of negligent misrepresentation or deceit, the court said, Cagnina had to claim that her employer negligently or willfully made a false statement regarding her employment upon which she reasonably relied.

Even if the company’s statements were false or misleading as to whether the 2013 memo constituted formal job counseling or whether Cagnina's job security was at risk, the court continued, Cagnina did not show that she relied to her detriment on those statements. Indeed, the court said, she conceded that she worked long hours "to meet all of her job requirements" and compensate for her short-staffed department.

The court dismissed the claims.

Cagnina v. Philadelphia Insurance Companies, D. Mass.,CIVIL NO. 1:14-cv-13049-PBS (Nov. 24, 2014).

Diane Cadrain is an attorney who has been writing about employment law issues for more than 20 years.

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