Earlier today, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that employees who are forced to resign as a result of retaliation by their employers in violation of the Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA) may be able to recover lost past and future wages even if they were not fired or constructively discharged. CEPA is New Jersey’s whistleblower law. Among other things, it prohibits employers from retaliating against employees who object to or refuse to participate in activities they reasonably believe are illegal, fraudulent, or violate a clear mandate of public policy regarding public health, safety, welfare, or the environment.
John Seddon, an employee who worked as an operator technician for DuPont, reported numerous workplace safety concerns, and eventually filed a complaint with the United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). DuPont retaliated against him in numerous ways, including verbal abuse, negative performance reviews, putting him on probation, forcing him to take a disability leave, suspending him for 53 days, making false accusations about him, and requiring him to work 12-hour shifts in isolation. The harassment eventually caused Mr. Seddon to suffer a mental breakdown. Unable to work for DuPont any longer, he took a 6-month disability leave of absence, and then began receiving a disability pension.
After a trial, a jury awarded Mr. Seddon $724,000 in economic damages and $500,000 in punitive damages. The trial court also awarded him $523,289 in attorney’s fees, for a total of nearly $1.75 million. However, the New Jersey Appellate Division reversed the verdict, ruling that Mr. Seddon could not recover lost wages under CEPA because he was neither fired nor constructively discharged. A constructive discharge is when an employee is forced to quit because his work environment is so intolerable that any reasonable person in his situation would feel compelled to resign.
But, the New Jersey Supreme Court disagreed that an actual firing or constructive discharge is required for an employee to recover lost wages under CEPA. Rather, the Court ruled that an employee can recover lost wages if his employer’s illegal retaliation caused him to be unable to work. As a result, in Donelson v. DuPont Chambers Works, it restored Mr. Seddon’s judgment.
New Jersey has one of the broadest whistleblower laws in the country. If you have experienced retaliation at work, you should consider contact an employment lawyer at Rabner Baumgart Ben-Asher & Nirenberg to discuss your employment law rights.