Filing Lawsuit Can Be Protected Under New Jersey’s Whistleblower Law

On April 14, 2011, New Jersey’s Appellate Division ruled that filing an employment discrimination lawsuit can be a protected “whistleblower” activity under the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA). Among other things, CEPA prohibits New Jersey employers from retaliating against an employee because he discloses or threatens to disclose to a supervisor or a public body, an activity, policy or practice that he reasonably believes violates the law.

The case, Hester v. Parker, involves Terry Hester, the former Director of Facilities/Operations for the Winslow Township Board of Education (Board). Mr. Hester, who is Caucasian, complained to the Board’s Director of Human Resources that Patricia Parker, an African-American Board member, made racist and discriminatory comments about job candidates.

After the Board failed to address his internal discrimination complaint, Mr. Hester filed a lawsuit under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD). However, the trial court dismissed his lawsuit.

But, in an unpublished decision the Appellate Division reversed. It ruled that both Mr. Hestor’s internal complaint and lawsuit alleging reverse discrimination could be considered protected “whistleblowing” under CEPA. The Court also concluded that a jury could find the Board’s decision to fire Mr. Hestor was retaliatory based on the fact that it gave him a negative performance evaluation only ten days after he filed his lawsuit, and the Superintendent recommended firing him only nine days after the Board received a copy of his lawsuit.

However, the Appellate Division made it clear that not every civil lawsuit or internal complaint to an employer is covered by CEPA. Rather, it ruled that a lawsuit is protected by CEPA only if (1) the employee complained about a violation of a mandatory legal standard like discrimination based on race, gender, religion, or sexual preference, and (2) the employee made an internal complaint before filing the lawsuit, but the employer failed to address it.

Discrimination and retaliation at work are illegal in both New Jersey and New York. Contact an employment lawyer if you believe your employment law rights have been violated.

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