Articles Posted in Retaliation / Whistleblowing

New Jersey’s Appellate Division recently recognized the significance of the “blue wall of silence” to a whistleblower case involving a New Jersey police officer.

The plaintiff, identified as “T.D.,” is a police officer in the Tinton Falls Police Department. In 2008, one of T.D.’s fellow officers reported to the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office that a police sergeant had installed a device called a diverter at his home so his personal water use would not be recorded. Instead of investigating the sergeant, the Police Department began an Internal Affairs (“IA”) investigation to determine who had contacted the prosecutor, and then brought disciplinary charges against that officer. When T.D. learned about this he objected to the Department’s decision to discipline the officer who complained, but not to even investigate the sergeant’s apparent crime.

Police Officer whistleblowerIn March 2009, T.D.’s sergeant asked to meet with him outside a local dumpsite, where he told T.D. he should have warned him about the prosecutor’s investigation. T.D. indicated he believed doing so would have unlawfully interfered with the prosecutor’s criminal investigation. During the meeting, the sergeant also made disparaging comments about the officer who initially reported the water diverter, and told T.D. that “everyone should watch their backs.”

Yesterday, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that New Jersey’s whistleblower law, the Conscientious Employee Protection Act (“CEPA”), protects employees who blow the whistle about issues that relate to their job duties.

CEPA is a broad whistleblower law. It prohibits employers from retaliating against employees who, among other things, object to or refuse to participate in activities they reasonable believe are illegal, fraudulent, or violate a clear mandate of public policy relating to public health, safety, welfare or the environment. It also protects licensed medical professionals who object to or refuse to participate in activities they reasonably believe constitute improper quality of patient care.

On several occasions, New Jersey’s Appellate Division has ruled that employees are not protected by CEPA if their objections relate to their job duties. This threatened to dramatically limit the scope of CEPA’s protection since employees typically are in the best position to blow the whistle on activities related to their job functions.

A recent unpublished decision from the New Jersey Appellate Division demonstrates that employees can prove their employers retaliated against them for objecting to discrimination without proving the discrimination actually was unlawful.

Debra Lemeshow worked for PSEG Services Corporation. In 2000, the company made her its Manager, Business Management Support, with a salary of $95,000 and a potential 15 percent annual bonus.

In 2001, PSEG hired a company to compare its compensation packages to similar jobs at other companies. It determined the appropriate salary for Ms. Lemeshow’s position was between $65,000 and $70,000 per year.

On June 16, 2014, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that by the Conscientious Employee Protection Act (“CEPA”) did not protect an employee who was fired after he objected because the nursing home for which he worked was not taking sufficient steps to prevent the spread of infectious disease. In the process, it concluded that to be protected by CEPA an objection has to relate to a measurable standard or requirement.

CEPA is New Jersey’s broad “whistleblower” law. Among other things, it prohibits employers from retaliating against employees because they object about activities they reasonably believe constitute “improper quality of patient care,” including any professional code of ethics, or are “incompatible with a clear mandate of public policy concerning the public health.”

James Hitesman, a registered nurse, worked for Bridgeway, Inc., at nursing home in Bridgewater, New Jersey. Bridgeway fired Mr. Hitesman after he complained to the company’s management about high rates of infectious diseases at the nursing home, and raised similar concerns to the Somerset County Department of Health, New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Service, and a television reporter. He sued, claiming Bridgeway fired him in violation of CEPA.

There are many ways to prove a retaliation claim.  Often, a key factor is the closeness in time between when the employee blows the whistle and when the employer takes an adverse employment action against her, such as firing or demoting her.  In most situations timing alone is not enough to prove retaliation. However, timing alone can be enough if it is “unusually suggestive” of retaliation.

There is no clear answer to how little time can be considered “unusually suggestive.”  But in a recent case the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey ruled a jury can find retaliation because the employer fired the employee eight days after her last protected activity.

Retaliation in the workplace and the Fair Labor Standards ActZalinskie v. Rosner Law Offices, P.C., Linda Zalinskie claims her employer, Rosner Law Offices, P.C., fired her because she complained about violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).  In contrast, the firm claims it spoke to Ms. Zalinskie about problems with her job performance and attitude nearly a year before she made these complaints, moved her into a new position at the time, and ultimately fired her because her performance and attitude did not improve.

Earlier this month, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the whistleblower protection of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act applies not only to employees of publicly traded companies, but also to employees of privately held companies who perform work for the publicly traded company as contractors or subcontractors.

Corporate Tax FraudThe Sarbanes Oxley Act is a 2002 law that was passed in 2002 in response to the collapse of Enron Corporation.  It includes an anti-retaliation provision that prohibits public companies, as well as their employees and agents from firing, harassing, demoting, suspending, or otherwise discriminating against employees who blow the whistle on certain activities prohibited by the Act.

The case, Lawson v. FMR LLC, involves the Fidelity family of mutual funds, which has no employees of its own.  The whistleblowers were Jonathan M. Zang and Jackie Hosang Lawson, both of whom were employed by different subsidiaries of the same parent company, FMR LLC.  Their employers are private companies that manage and advise the Fidelity family of mutual funds.

Retaliation Green Road Sign on Dramatic Blue Sky with Clouds.
To prevail in a retaliation lawsuit you have to prove your employer took an adverse action (such as demoting or firing you) because you engaged in a legally-protected activity. For example, if your employer fired you after you complained you were not being properly paid for working overtime you would have to prove there was a connection between your complaint and the company’s decision to fire you. This is called a “causal link.”

There are many different ways to prove a causal link in a retaliation case. Some of the most common ways include evidence your employer fired you quickly after you objected, a decision-maker was angry about your objection, or the company’s explanation for firing you is false. A recent New Jersey case, Goldsmid v. Lee Rain, Inc., finds another potential way to prove retaliation: Based on evidence the employer had someone ready to replace you very quickly after it fired you.

Craig Goldsmid worked for Lee Rain, Inc. in Vineland, New Jersey, most recently in the company’s warehouse. Although Lee Rain initially paid him by the hour, in early 2010 it began paying him a salary.

New Jersey Court Finds Protection for Whistleblower Who Objected as Part of Job Last week, New Jersey’s Appellate Division revisited the question of whether an employee who blows the whistle about an activity related to his job duties can be protected by New Jersey’s Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA). This time, the court concluded the employee can proceed with his claim even though he blew the whistle about an issue related to his job.

There is a split in legal authority over this issue. As I discussed in a previous article, New Jersey’s Whistleblower Law Protects “Watchdog” Employees Whose Jobs Require Them to Report Violations of Law, last September another panel of the Appellate Division ruled an employee whose job is focused on corporate safety or compliance issues is protected by CEPA only if he (1) “pursued and exhausted all internal means of securing compliance” or (2) “refused to participate in the objectionable conduct.” In contrast, several previous cases have ruled that employees who object about violations of the law in the course of performing their jobs are not protected by CEPA.

The latest case to address this issue is Dukin v. Mount Olive Township Board of Education. Robert Dukin worked for the Mount Olive Township Board of Education as an auto-mechanic. In early January 2010, he told his supervisor about a number of safety concerns about a particular school bus. The next time Mr. Dukin was at work, he saw a bus driver preparing to drive the unsafe bus. After confirming the bus had not been repaired, Mr. Dukin told the bus driver not to drive it. He then reported this to the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission’s on-site inspector, who directed Mount Olive to take the bus out of service.

Last month, in Gomez v. Town of West New York, the United States District Judge William Martini denied a motion to dismiss a civil rights lawsuit against the Town of West New York, New Jersey.

Alain Gomez worked for West New York as its Urban Enterprise Zone Coordinator. According to Mr. Gomez’s allegations, when Mayor Felix Roque ordered him to seek contributions to a private charitable not-for-profit organization the Mayor was running, Mr. Gomez refused because it was illegal to work for a private organization during his working hours for the Town. The Mayor then retaliated against Mr. Gomez by moving him into a small office without proper ventilation.

New Jersey Appellate Court Permits Whistleblower Lawsuit to Proceed.jpgIn response, Mr. Gomez filed a complaint under the New Jersey Public Employees Occupational Safety and Health Act (“PEOSHA”). The state eventually ordered West New York to provide Mr. Gomez safe working conditions. Around the same time Mr. Gomez also contributed information to a website called www.recallroque.com, and publicly accused Mayor Roque of misusing public resources.

New Jersey’s Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA) has long been described as one of the broadest whistleblower laws in the nation. Among other things, it prohibits employers from retaliating against employees because they object to, disclose, or refuse to participate in an activity they reasonably believe is illegal, criminal or fraudulent.

Despite CEPA’s broad reach, several past cases have ruled that employees are not protected by CEPA if their objections were part of their job duties. For example, a safety officer who complains about an unsafe work condition or a human resources manager who reports sexual harassment would not be protected by CEPA under those cases.

But earlier this month, in Lippman v. Ethicon, Inc., New Jersey’s Appellate Division ruled that line of cases is inconsistent with the way the New Jersey Supreme Court has directed courts to interpret CEPA. It ruled that “an employee’s job title or employment responsibilities” should not be the deciding factor in a CEPA case.

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