Businesses should take steps to prevent and address misconduct and violations of laws and regulations. They can also face penalties if there is retaliation against whistleblowers.
New Jersey employment law provides whistleblower protection under the Conscientious Employee Protection Act. CEPA protects workers’ jobs when they object to or report conduct that they reasonably believe violates a law or regulation, or is dangerous to the public health, safety and welfare. In the healthcare field, CEPA applies to workers reporting an employer’s improper patient care.
Workers who refuse to participate or object to the conduct also receive protection. CEPA may protect workers if the conduct concerns another employer that has a business relationship with the reporter’s employer and coworker conduct even if the employer did not approve or direct that conduct.
CEPA is intended to encourage workers to report these activities and deter employers from engaging in illegal or unethical conduct. However, it does not protect workers who report this conduct to the media.
A CEPA lawsuit must be filed within one year. A successful CEPA lawsuit can result in job reinstatement and compensatory and punitive damages.
Before reporting to a public body, the employee must provide written notice of the illegal or questionable activity, policy, or practice to their employer. Employers have the opportunity to correct this problem before the alleged misconduct is reported to the public body.
However, this disclosure may not be required if the worker is reasonably certain that a supervisor or management is aware of the problem. It is also unnecessary in an emergency or if the worker reasonably fears imminent harm.
Workers should clearly and specifically identify the law, regulation, or clear mandate they are reporting. It is also important to explain the harm that could occur. Well-recognized codes of ethics or a law’s legislative intent may constitute a clear public mandate, but religious doctrine or personal belief do not.
Employees must also use the least disruptive means to assert their CEPA rights. If work is refused, the employee should tell their employer that the particular assignment is illegal or poses an imminent risk of serious physical harm or death and offer to perform other work.
Here are some examples of successful CEPA lawsuits:
- A company accused an employee of falsifying timecards to retaliate against the worker for complaining to OSHA and management about hazards to employees performing nightly employee security checks on busy roads. Concerns about catastrophic damage to employees suffering accident injuries was a valid public policy concern.
- An industrial arts teacher was fired for reporting inadequate ventilation to his supervisor. Even though he was unfamiliar with the applicable regulation, he relied on public policy regarding dangerous health and safety conditions for students.
- Employee fired for refusing to plant an illegal object on another worker as a setup.
Other state labor laws and health and safety laws prohibit retaliation, as do federal laws such as the National Labor Relations Act. Attorneys can help businesses comply with these laws and represent them in investigations and proceedings.