CEPA, or the Conscientious Employee Protection Act, sets the bar high for New Jersey businesses. CEPA is a powerful New Jersey law that protects whistle-blower employees from employer retaliation. Employers charged with a CEPA violation face extensive potential liability including punitive damages and those for emotional distress, including:
Reinstatement of the whistle-blower on par with former position;
Reasonable costs and attorneys fees;
Civil fines of $10,000.00 for one conviction; if more than one, $20,000.00; and
Punitive damages, the greater of $350,000.00 or five times the compensatory award.
Here is a description of a case in point. The threshold requirement is that the employee believes the employer has violated a law, rule, or regulation or public policy as to health, safety or welfare. Courts do not expect the employee to actually know the law, rule, or regulations, but neither does it allow the supposed offense to be trivial. Next the employee must have reported this to his/her supervisor or to a public body. Note that reporting the conduct to one’s attorney suffices. Rather than respond in a positive way to the notification, the employer then retaliates against the whistle-blower. In order to be characterized as retaliatory, an act must cause “lasting prejudice”. Beware: lateral transfers that carry neither reduction in pay or grade can qualify as retaliation.
There are a number of regulatory procedures with which employers are required to comply, in order to remain within the law. The New Jersey Commissioner of Labor and Workforce Development requires three key notice-requirements of employers. First, each employer must provide the name of the person designated as its agent to receive CEPA notices. Second, employers must prominently post at all times in an appropriate place(s) a notice of CEPA protections. Finally, the third requirement is that employers must distribute to each and every employee an annual notice of CEPA protections. See N.J.S.A. 34:19-7 for details.