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Watchdog Employees are Protected by State Whistleblower Law, New Jersey Supreme Court Rules

Jul 20, 2015

New Jersey's whistleblower law applies to watchdog employees, the state's Supreme Court ruled recently. In a 38-page decision, Supreme Court Justice Jaynee LaVecchia wrote that the unanimous decision supports a previous appeals court ruling, NJ Spotlight reports. Whistleblower laws are intended to protect employees who report misconduct or other type of wrongdoing. This has been an important part of detecting fraud, since the government is often limited in how it can reinforce rules.

According to NJ Spotlight, the high court's ruling expands the states whistleblower law to include employees who are responsible for detecting health and safety risks. Whistleblower advocates say that this law needs to be applied to watchdog employees, because they might otherwise be less inclined to report wrongdoing. Whistleblower laws protect employees from retaliatory action, such as being fired or demoted, for speaking out about internal issues.

In making its decision, the state's Supreme Court evaluated the language of the Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA), ruling that "There is simply no support in CEPA's definition of 'employee' to restrict the Act's application and preclude its protection of watchdog employees,'' according to NJ Spotlight. The decision stems from a case involving a doctor employed by Johnson & Johnson's Ethicon unit. His job was to evaluate the safety of the company's surgical products based off his medical knowledge. He opposed Ethicon many times, insisting that certain products should not go to market, be recalled, or that more research should be done. He urged the company to conduct a recall in 2006. Ethicon eventually recalled the product. However, the doctor was then fired, supposedly for engaging in an inappropriate relationship with an employee that he has authority over. He subsequently filed a whistleblower lawsuit.

A lower court initially dismissed the case, but this was overturned by a state appeals panel. The state Supreme Court largely reaffirmed this ruling, but also found that it is not necessary for watchdog employees to show that they exhausted all internal complaint procedures before being protected by the whistleblower law.

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