New Jersey workers are protected against retaliation in the workplace by the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA) or “whistleblower” statute.
CEPA prohibits employers from taking retaliatory action against an employee because the employee discloses information regarding an employer’s illegal or fraudulent activity, gives information related to an employer’s violation of the law, or refuses to participate in the employer’s illegal activity.
In other words, if an employee is asked to participate in or witnesses his employer’s illegal activity while on the job, the employee does not have to agree to participate. Furthermore, the employee is allowed to report it and to cooperate with investigators without of fear of dismissal or other disciplinary action.
CEPA provides broad protections against retaliation, which is important because retaliation against an employee can take many different forms. Under CEPA, “retaliatory acts” are defined as discharge, suspension, or demotion of an employee, or any other adverse employment action taken against the employee with regard to the terms and conditions of employment. Therefore, an employee is protected not only against being fired for being a whistleblower but also against other retaliatory disciplinary action.
Notice Requirements for Employers
Employers are required to give their employees notice of the protections that CEPA provides. Specifically, employers must post and distribute a written or electronic notice explaining CEPA’s protections. These notices must be distributed in both English and Spanish, or in any other language that a majority of the employees at a particular job site speak. This rule does not apply, however, to any employers with ten or fewer employees.
CEPA Protects Good-Faith Mistakes
Even if an employee mistakenly believes that the employer is engaged in illegal activity, they are still protected by CEPA, as long as they believed in good faith at the time of their report that the activity may have been illegal or fraudulent. If, however, an employee files an intentionally false CEPA claim, they may be liable to the employer for the costs associated with defending the claim. It is important, therefore, that a worker properly understands how CEPA works and how it protects employees.
What Are the Consequences for a CEPA Violation?
If an employer violates CEPA and discriminates or retaliates against a whistleblower, the aggrieved employee can usually bring a civil claim in court. Many CEPA claims are heard by a jury. If the jury rules in favor of the employee, several remedies are available, including
- Issuance of an injunction against the employer to discontinue the illegal activity
- Reinstatement of the employee to the same or an equivalent position if they were fired or demoted
- Reinstatement of all benefits and rights associated with employment if they were taken away
- Monetary damages for any lost wages or benefits
- Reasonable costs and attorneys’ fees
- Punitive damages (in cases of heinous actions)
- Fines of up to $20,000
Understanding CEPA and its procedural requirements can be complicated, and the law is subject to change. It is important to quickly seek legal advice if you believe your employer is engaging in illegal activity. By taking this step before you “blow the whistle,” you may better protect yourself in case you are retaliated against in violation of CEPA. If you believe that you already have become the victim of unlawful retaliation, you should seek the help of an expert employment attorney as soon as possible, since there may be a limited time to file a CEPA claim.