New Jersey Supreme Court Expands Claim of Wrongful Discharge in Violation of Public Policy

On December 16, 2008, in the case of Tartaglia v. UBS PaineWebber, the New Jersey Supreme Court expanded the scope of the claim of wrongful discharge in violation of public policy.

Before explaining the significance of the Tartaglia decision, it is important to understand the claim of wrongful discharge in violation of public policy. The New Jersey Supreme Court first recognized that claim in 1980, when it ruled that it is unlawful to fire a New Jersey employee in if the termination violates a clear mandate of public policy. Specifically, that prohibits a company from firing an employee for objecting to an illegal corporate policy or practice, or for refusing to engage in an illegal activity. It also prohibits companies from firing an employee for blowing the whistle on, or refusing to engage in, acts that are not illegal but violate a clear mandate of public.

A few years later, in 1986, the New Jersey legislature passed the Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA). CEPA prohibits a broad range of retaliatory employment actions, such as making it unlawful to fire an employee for objecting to or refusing to participate in an activity he or she reasonably believed was fraudulent, criminal, violated the law, or was incompatible with a clear mandate of public policy concerning public health, safety or welfare, or the protection of the environment.

While CEPA is extremely broad, the claim of wrongful discharge in violation of public policy is still important because not all wrongful discharge claims are necessarily covered by CEPA. In addition, employees have at least two years to bring a claim of wrongful discharge (and possibly as long as six years), but only one year to bring file a claim under CEPA.

The New Jersey Appellate Division has twice ruled that employees are not protected by the claim of wrongful discharge in violation of public policy if they make their objection to another employee at their company. Both of those cases conclude that employees must blow the whistle to a government agency to be legally protected by that claim.

However, Tartaglia overrules those cases. It concludes that New Jersey employees are protected from being wrongfully discharged in violation of public policy even if they made only internal complaints. However, to be protected an employee’s internal complaint has to have been made to an individual with authority to correct the problem. Accordingly, an objection to a coworker or even to the employee’s immediate supervisor is usually insufficient.

Whistleblower claims and other retaliation claims of wrongful discharge in violation of New Jersey’s public policy can be complicated. If you believe you have experienced unlawful retaliation at work, you should contact an experienced employment lawyer to discuss your employment law rights.