A recent ruling by the New Jersey Supreme Court has extended the state’s whistleblower protections to employees whose jobs entail identifying health and safety risks.
The court ruled unanimously to affirm an appeals court ruling that said whistleblower protections included watchdog employees, NJ Spotlight reports. Justice Jaynee LaVecchia wrote the 38-page decision.
Advocates for the extended protections argued that without protection against employer retaliation, employees who monitor and report health and safety issues may be less likely to speak out about problems they uncover. Business groups argued that widening the law’s application could make it harder for companies to manage its watchdog employees, according to NJ Spotlight. Under the ruling, New Jersey’s Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA) applies to employees whose job is to uncover workplace hazards and problems with products manufactured by a business. “There is simply no support in CEPA’s definition of ‘employee’ to restrict the Act’s application and preclude its protection of watchdog employees,” the ruling said.
The case under appeal involved Ethicon Inc., a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson. Dr. Joel Lipman, whose job was to provide medical opinions about the safety of Ethicon’s pharmaceutical products used for surgical procedures, had objected on a number of occasions to the proposed or continued sale and distribution of different medical products, or he had urged that products be recalled, or that further research was needed. In April 2006, he recommended that a particular product should be recalled, which it was, but the month after he made the recall recommendation Lipman was fired. Ethicon said Lipman was fired because he had had an inappropriate relationship with someone in a department over which he had authority. Lipman filed a whistleblower lawsuit, NJ Spotlight reports.
A lower court dismissed the case but a state appeals panel reversed the dismissal. The Supreme Court’s decision essentially agreed with the appellate ruling. The Supreme Court further ruled that watchdog employees do not have to demonstrate that they exhausted all internal complaint procedures prior to being protected as whistleblowers.
An attorney who filed a supporting brief in the case commented, “If the court had agreed with the employer’s argument, it would have opened a statutory hole big enough to drive a truck through and few, if any, employees would be able to rely upon its protections,” according to NJ Spotlight. Rev. Fletcher Harper, president of the New Jersey Work Environment Council and executive director of GreenFaith, an interfaith group concerned with environmental issues, said, “[W]histleblowers [play] a crucial role in identifying hazards and getting them corrected.’’ He said whistleblowers are “the community’s eyes and ears” and said “they must not be silenced.’’