Civil Service Employee’s Failure to Appeal Discipline Does Not Bar Retaliation Case

On November 10, 2010, New Jersey’s Appellate Division ruled that a civil service employee can bring a lawsuit alleging that discipline against him was retaliatory even if he did not appeal a Civil Service Commission decision upholding the discipline. In Racanelli v. County of Passaic, James Racanelli sued the County of Passaic, the Passaic County Sheriff’s Department, Passaic County’s Sheriff, and various other employees. He alleges they harassed him and otherwise retaliated against him in violation of New Jersey’s Conscientious Employee Protection Act (“CEPA”) because he reported numerous unlawful and inappropriate actions within the Sheriff’s Department. For example, he claims they transferred him to work at the county jail even though he was not trained to work there, and fired him in retaliation for his objections.

Mr. Racanelli appealed the County’s decision to fire him to the Civil Service Commission (“CSC”). The CSC handles administrative appeals of major discipline brought against permanent civil service employees. In this case, the CSC upheld Passaic County’s decision to fire Mr. Racanelli. Mr. Racanelli chose not to appeal that decision to the Appellate Division. Instead, he brought a separate retaliation lawsuit under CEPA. However, the trial court ruled that because Mr. Racanelli did not appeal the CSC’s decision upholding the discipline to the Appellate Division, he could not pursue a whistleblower case.

The trial court also found Mr. Racanelli’s claims were barred because he did not file a notice of claim under New Jersey’s Tort Claims Act. The Tort Claims Act requires that an individual with a personal injury claim against the state, a county, or a municipality must submit a formal notice of claim to the public entity. Failure to file a notice of claim within six months after the injury is generally a bar to bringing a lawsuit against a public entity.

On appeal, New Jersey’s Appellate Division disagreed with both of the lower court’s rulings. It held that an employee can sue under CEPA even if he did not appeal a Civil Service Commission decision upholding the discipline against him because an employee has “the discretion to pursue his retaliation claim in a judicial forum rather than in the administrative process.” This is similar to the decision in Winters v. North Hudson Regional Fire & Rescue, which ruled that a municipal employee can prove retaliation even if the Civil Service Commission upheld the discipline against him. But unlike Winters, the decision in Racanelli is published, meaning it is a binding legal precedent.

The Appellate Division also ruled that the notice of claim requirement of the Tort Claims Act does not apply to CEPA cases. New Jersey Courts have long recognized that, since the Tort Claims Act does not apply to intentional claims, it does not apply to cases under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, the anti-retaliation provisions of the Workers’ Compensation Act, and other civil rights claims. The Appellate Division applied the same reasoning to conclude that the notice of claim requirement does not apply to CEPA case.

If you have been fired, harassed or otherwise experienced retaliation at your job in New York or New Jersey, you should consider contacting a whistleblower lawyer to learn more information about your employment law rights.

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