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.

Accounting Firm Partner Cannot be a Whistleblower Under New Jersey’s Conscientious Employee Protection Act

Editor’s Note – The below appeared in Legal Briefs, Drinker Biddle’s periodic summary of judicial decisions affecting accounting and financial services professionals.  To view the entire issue click here.

Accounting Firm Partner Cannot be a Whistleblower Under New Jersey’s Conscientious Employee Protection Act

The district court for the District of New Jersey recently ruled that an accounting firm partner may not claim he was a whistleblower who was improperly fired by his firm.  In Largie v. TCBA Watson Rice, Civil Action No. 10-cv-0553 (D.N.J. Aug. 20, 2013), the court considered the plaintiff Largie’s claim that he had been wrongfully terminated in retaliation for his attempted disclosures about alleged fraudulent practices at his accounting firm.  The firm contended that it had fired Largie for his chronic absences and for attributing fees from the firm’s clients to another accounting firm.  Largie was the director of the firm’s taxation department and an equity partner, holding a 10.5 percent interest in the firm. He also set his own schedule and did not report to anyone else.  Without reaching his claims of fraudulent practices, the court found that Largie was not an employee who was entitled to protection under the CEPA statute.  Largie’s ability to influence the operations and activities of the accounting firm meant that he had the power to save himself from the kind of unlawful retaliatory actions the CEPA statute was intended to prevent.

New Jersey Gender Equity in Pay – Notice and Posting Requirements Effective January 6, 2014

By: Marion B. Cooper

Governor Chris Christie signed Assembly Bill 2647 (the “Gender Equity Notice and Posting Law,” N.J.S.A. 34:11-56.12) into law, effective November 21, 2012 requiring New Jersey employers with 50 or more employees to conspicuously post a notice, where it would be accessible to all workers in each of the employer’s workplaces, informing employees of their “right to be free of gender inequity or bias in pay, compensation, benefits, or other terms or conditions of employment” under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, other New Jersey State law, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the federal Equal Pay Act of 1963.  (http://www.njleg.state.nj.us/2012/Bills/PL12/57_.PDF)

Under the Gender Equity Notice and Posting Law, employers have 30 days from December 9, 2013, the date the New Jersey Division of Labor and Workforce Development (“NJDLWD”) issued the “notice” to comply.  The gender equity notice is now available for download from the NJDLWD at: http://lwd.state.nj.us/labor/forms_pdfs/EmployerPosterPacket/genderequityposter.pdf

Here is what “covered” employers (those employers with 50 or more employees, whether they work inside or outside of New Jersey) must do:

  1. Beginning January 6, 2014, conspicuously post the gender equity notice where it is accessible to all employees in each of the employer’s workplaces.  If the covered employer has an internet or intranet site for its employees’ exclusive use to which all employees have access, posting of the notice on such a site will satisfy the conspicuous posting requirement.
  2. By February 5, 2014, provide each employee hired on or before January 6, 2014 with a written copy of the gender equity notice.
  3. After January 6, 2014, provide each employee with a written copy of the gender equity notice at the time of the employee’s hiring.
  4. Beginning January 6, 2014, and on or before December 31 of each subsequent year, provide each employee a written copy of the gender equity notice.
  5. At any time, upon the first request of the worker, provide each employee a written copy of the gender equity notice.

Covered employers may distribute the gender equity notice as follows:

  1. By email;
  2. Via printed materials, including, but not limited to, a paycheck insert, brochure or similar informational packet provided to new hires, an attachment to an employee manual or policy book, or flyer distributed at an employee meeting; or
  3. By way of an internet or intranet site, so long as it is accessible by all employees, for employees’ exclusive use and the employer provides notice to workers of its posting.

Covered employers must ensure that the gender equity notice contains an acknowledgment, indicating that the worker has received the notification and has read and understands its terms.  The acknowledgment must be signed by the employee, in writing or electronically verified form, and returned to the employer within 30 days of receipt.  The notice must be posted in English, Spanish, and any other language the employer reasonably believes is the first language of a significant number of workers in the covered employer’s workforce, provided that the NJDLWD has issued a form notice in that language.

New Jersey employers (with 10 employees or more) are reminded of the similar, annual posting and distribution requirements of the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act (“CEPA”) and of the new posting requirement of the New Jersey SAFE Act, which provides unpaid leave for victims of domestic violence.  As the end of 2013 rapidly approaches, New Jersey employers are encouraged to take time out to make sure that all postings are current for the new year, that all distribution requirements are or will be satisfied, and that handbooks are updated to reflect these new laws.

NJ Supreme Court Expands The Scope Of Retaliation Claims Under The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination

By: Jerrold J. Wohlgemuth

Under the guise of promoting the “broad remedial purposes” of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”), the New Jersey Supreme Court recently decided that employees may be protected from retaliation under the LAD even when they complain about offensive sexual comments by a supervisor which would not violate the law because they were not heard by any female employee.  In Battaglia v. United Parcel Service, Inc., the plaintiff objected to his supervisor’s repeated use of crude sexual language during discussions with other men about women in the workplace,  and made a vague reference to that language in an anonymous letter of complaint to management.  The employer investigated the complaints raised in that letter, but did not pursue the issue of offensive sexual comments because the letter was too vague to understand that the reference to “language you wouldn’t use [in] your worst nightmare” was about crude sexual comments.  Management – including the supervisor in question – figured out that plaintiff wrote the letter.  It subsequently conducted a separate investigation concerning certain inappropriate conduct by plaintiff and demoted him from his position as a manager.  Plaintiff then sued for retaliation under the LAD, and included a separate cause of action for retaliation under the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act (“CEPA”) based on other complaints he had raised concerning alleged fraudulent use of corporate credit cards.

Following a jury verdict for plaintiff, the New Jersey Appellate Division affirmed the jury’s verdict for plaintiff under CEPA but reversed with respect to the cause of action for retaliation under the LAD.  That court observed that the LAD only protects employees who reasonably believe that the employer is engaged in conduct which would be unlawful under the LAD, and that plaintiff had not engaged in protected activity because there was no discrimination or hostile work environment where the comments by the supervisor were not direct to, or heard by, any female employee.

The Supreme Court reinstated the LAD verdict, but vacated the verdict under CEPA because, among other things, the plaintiff admitted he did not believe the credit card use had been fraudulent.  With respect to the LAD cause of action for retaliation, the Court rejected the appellate court’s “narrow interpretation” that the Act only protects employees who complain about “demonstrable acts of discrimination.”  Instead, once again invoking the broad remedial purposes of the Act, the Court found that the jury had sufficient evidence to find that the plaintiff had a “good faith belief” that the supervisor’s crude sexual references to women in the workplace was unlawful under the LAD.  In this regard, the Court observed: “when an employee voices a complaint about behavior or activities in the workplace that he or she thinks are discriminatory, we do not demand that he or she accurately understand the nuances of the LAD or that he or she be able to prove that there was an identifiable discriminatory impact upon someone of the requisite protected class.”

It has long been clear that an employee may pursue a cause of action for retaliation under the LAD even where the underlying complaint of discrimination has no merit.  What is not clear is how an employee could have a reasonable belief that he was complaining about unlawful conduct where that conduct – offensive comments about women made to a group of men – could not possibly be unlawful.  That is compounded in this case by the fact that management could hardly be expected to understand that the plaintiff was complaining about unlawful conduct from the vague reference in his letter.  The opinion reflects the Court’s determination to continue to read the LAD expansively to protect employees from retaliation.  Indeed, the driving factor in this case may be reflected in the Court’s observation that the jury had evidence to support a finding that management not only gave short shrift to the complaints, but responded by imposing discipline against the complainer.

Whistleblowing May Not Be Limited to Claims About Employer Wrongdoing in New Jersey

By: Jerrold J. Wohlgemuth

The New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act (“CEPA”) was designed to protect whistleblowing employees who have the courage to stand up to illegal or wrongful conduct by their employer.  As the courts have consistently held, the initial focus in a typical CEPA case is on the whistleblower’s prima facie case burden to establish that he/she had an objectively reasonable basis to believe that the employer did something wrong by either violating a law or engaging in conduct incompatible with a clear mandate of public policy.

In an unreported opinion issued in March 2013, however, the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey found that CEPA can be implicated even where there is no claim or contention that the employer did anything wrong.  In Stapleton v. DSW, Inc. (2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 38502), the plaintiff employee believed that a store customer was mistreating her young child by, among other things, not changing her dirty diaper, and decided to “blow the whistle” on the customer by turning her in to the New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency (the “Division”) out of concern for the child’s health and wellbeing.  The plaintiff employee gave the customer’s name and address to the Division after obtaining that information from the customer’s transaction with the store.  In doing so, the plaintiff violated the company’s perfectly lawful policy prohibiting the unauthorized disclosure of confidential customer information.  When the employer learned of what had happened, it discharged the plaintiff for violating its non-disclosure policy, and she filed suit under CEPA.

Not surprisingly, the company moved to dismiss the lawsuit on the grounds that the plaintiff was not a protected “whistleblower” because she did not allege that the company had done anything wrong or illegal.  Indeed, the plaintiff had blown the whistle on the customer, not the company.  This is where it gets interesting.  In denying the company’s motion, the District Court noted that CEPA not only protects employees who object to illegal activity, but also those who refuse to follow a policy or practice which they reasonably believe is incompatible with a clear mandate of public policy.  Unlike most CEPA cases, the court in Stapleton focused on the conduct of the employee – not the employer – and concluded that she was protected under CEPA by virtue of the fact that she acted pursuant to the public policy that encourages individuals to report child abuse.  In this circumstance, the court determined that the company’s policy prohibiting the disclosure of the customer’s identity was incompatible with the State’s clear mandate to protect the health and welfare of children, and that the plaintiff was therefore engaged in protected “whistleblowing” under CEPA when she refused to “participate in” or follow that policy in order to help the Division identify the customer.

While the court’s CEPA analysis is subject to debate – there was no allegation that the employer had engaged in wrongful or illegal conduct – the plaintiff would appear to have a claim for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy where the New Jersey Child Protection Law provides immunity to employees reporting child abuse, and the New Jersey courts have held that employer policies on confidentiality must yield to matters of child safety.  Nevertheless, this opinion should serve as a caution to employers and counsel alike that the courts often take an expansive view of the protections provided under CEPA.

Blowing The Wrong Whistle – Close Scrutiny Of Code Of Ethics Dooms Nurse’s Lawsuit Under New Jersey’s Whistleblower Statute

By: Lawrence J. Del Rossi

New Jersey’s Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA) is remedial legislation designed to protect employees who “blow the whistle” on illegal or unethical activity committed by their employers or co-workers.  To be sure, CEPA is a powerful anti-retaliation statute, providing an array of significant remedies to an aggrieved party.  However, as the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility.  A recent decision by the Appellate Division, Hitesman v. Bridgeway, Inc. (decided March 22, 2013), highlights the important gatekeeping functions of trial courts in CEPA cases.  Click here for a copy of Hitesman. http://www.judiciary.state.nj.us/opinions/a0140-11.pdf.

Not every employee who “blows a whistle” is a “whistleblower” subject to the protections of CEPA.  An employee who lacks an objectively reasonable belief that his or her employer’s conduct violated a law or public policy or constituted improper quality of patient care cannot, as a matter of law, sustain a viable claim under CEPA.  The Supreme Court in Dzwonar v. McDevitt, 177 N.J. 451 (2003) provided the legal framework for trial courts to use to separate the proverbial wheat from the chaff in most CEPA cases.  First, the trial court must identify a law, rule, or regulation promulgated pursuant to a law or a clear mandate of public policy, that the plaintiff believed was violated by the employer’s conduct.  Next, the court must determine whether there is a “substantial nexus between the complained-of conduct and [the] law or public policy identified by the court or the plaintiff.”  If the trial court so finds, the jury then must determine whether the plaintiff “actually held a belief and, if so, whether that belief was objectively reasonable.”

In Hitesman, the plaintiff, a nurse who worked at a long-term nursing home facility, disclosed to government regulators “practices of Defendant that he reasonably believed constituted improper quality of patient care and violations of his professional code of ethics.”  He sued under CEPA after he was fired for admittedly violating the defendant’s confidentiality policy (improper disclosure of patient information).  The trial court allowed the plaintiff’s CEPA claim to proceed to a jury trial, and the jury found in the plaintiff’s favor on liability.  However, on appeal the Appellate Division reversed the jury’s verdict.

Applying the analytical framework in Dzwonar for determining whether the plaintiff has established a prima facie case under CEPA, the court in Hitesman found that the plaintiff had failed to proffer facts that would support an objectively reasonable belief that a violation of law or clear mandate of public policy by his employer had occurred.  The Appellate Division concluded that the plaintiff’s reliance on the American Nursing Association’s Code of Ethics (“Code”), his employer’s Employee Handbook and a Statement of Residents’ Rights, was misplaced because none of these documents constituted a source of law or public policy closely related to the conduct about which the plaintiff claimed he had blown the whistle.  While the section of the Code relied upon by the plaintiff provided guidance as to whether he had acted in compliance with the Code in expressing his concerns, nothing in the Code established any standards regarding patient care.  As a result, the court held that the plaintiff’s belief that his employer had acted in violation of the Code was not objectively reasonable as a matter of law.

The court in Hitesman also concluded that “generalized statements” in the employer’s Employee Handbook about a commitment to “the best quality of health care” and requirements that its employees comply with all applicable statutes, regulations and ethical standards were “far too vague” to provide a “high degree of public certitude in respect of acceptable versus unacceptable conduct.”  Thus, an employee’s reliance on generalized statements that the employer and its employees will comply with the law will not support a CEPA claim.

All too often, plaintiffs in CEPA cases cite a litany of broad and generalized legislative, ethical rule or code of conduct statements to challenge management decisions.  Do not let a plaintiff get away with the “throw everything at the wall to see what sticks” approach in CEPA cases.  Hitesman and Dzwonar require trial courts to engage in a rigorous analysis to determine whether the plaintiff had, as a matter of law, an objectively reasonable belief that the complained-of conduct violated a law or public policy.  Because CEPA does not shield a complainer who simply disagrees with an employer’s course of lawful conduct, close scrutiny of the complained-of conduct by the trial court is essential.  As the court in Hitesman explained, it is “not enough for an employee to rest upon a sincerely held – and perhaps even correct – belief that the employer has failed to follow the most appropriate course of action, even when patient safety is involved.”  Instead, the employee must have an objectively reasonable belief that a violation of relevant legal authority occurred.