The public has an interest in finding out when businesses are breaking the law. The people most likely to have that information are employers of the company in question. In an effort to encourage public disclosure of wrongdoing, New Jersey passed the Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA). CEPA is sometimes referred to as a whistleblower statute. Blowing the whistle on your employer was, prior to the passage of CEPA, a good way to end up fired. The statute works to protect workers by preventing employers from taking adverse job actions, including wrongful discharge, termination, demotion or transfer in retaliation. CEPA gives workers the right to recover damages, including attorney’s fees, if the company does retaliate. Until recently, however, it was not clear whether CEPA extended to workers whose job duties included identifying health and safety risks.
The New Jersey Supreme Court recently upheld a ruling from the appeals court that watchdog employees were covered under CEPA like any other worker. The employer in question, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, had argued that watchdog employees were not “employees” under the terms of CEPA. The appeals court and New Jersey Supreme Court disagreed.
The NJ Supreme Court went further than the appeals court. It ruled that watchdog employees do not need to exhaust every internal complaint option before claiming protection as whistleblowers under CEPA. That ruling will prevent employers from gaining protection through obtuse or overly burdensome internal reporting procedures.
Few employees are in a better position to discover that a company is ignoring public safety than watchdog employees. A ruling that CEPA did not extend to such employees would have run contrary to the purpose of the law and allowed unscrupulous businesses to run roughshod over employees who dared to speak up.
Source: The New Jersey Spotlight, “State’s Top Court Rules Whistleblower Law Extends To Watchdog Employees,” by Tom Johnson, 16 July 2015