New Jersey’s Whistleblower Law Is Not An End Run Around Labor Law Preemption

By: Meredith R. Murphy

New Jersey’s Appellate Division has rejected two Atlantic City nightclub workers’ attempts to artfully plead their way around preemption under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and the Labor Management Relations Act (LMRA) by alleging a whistleblower claim under New Jersey’s Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA). The case was brought by two “Tipped Floor Euros,” i.e., alcoholic beverage servers, who alleged retaliation and constructive discharge following their complaints regarding tip-pooling, wage payments and being forced to perform duties prohibited by the collective bargaining agreement (CBA). The case is O’Donnell v. Nightlife, et al. (April 17, 2014).

In rejecting the plaintiffs’ CEPA claims, the Appellate Division took a narrow view of the whistleblower statute, citing the standard that the conduct complained of must “pose a threat of public harm, not merely private harm or harm only to the aggrieved employee.” [Opinion, p. 11, available here, citing Mehlman v. Mobil Oil Corp., 153 N.J. 163, 188 (1988)] The Appellate Court agreed with the trial court that most of the plaintiffs’ complaints alleged violations of the CBA, not violations of law, and accordingly, not violations of CEPA.

The Appellate Division also took a broad view of preemption under the NLRA and LMRA. The Court gave credit to plaintiffs’ attempts to “artfully phrase” the language in the complaint – alleging that failure to pay the share of the nightly tip pool constituted “fraud” and failure to pay full minimum wage for non-tipped work constituted a “violation of [New Jersey] wage and hour laws.” However, the Appellate Division ultimately ruled that such state causes of action are presumptively preempted under NLRA and LMRA and were appropriately dismissed as preempted because they each ultimately asserted violations of the CBA or claims that required interpretation of the CBA.

Accordingly, based on this precedent, a unionized employee’s remedy lies not under CEPA but through the union grievance procedure and the relief available under Sections 7 and 8 of the NLRA.