The New Jersey Supreme Court has widened the state’s whistleblower law, extending its protections to employees whose jobs entail identifying health and safety risks.
In a unanimous decision, the court affirmed an appeals court ruling that found whistleblower protections cover watchdog employees, NJ Spotlight reports. The 38-page decision was written by Justice Jaynee LaVecchia.
Advocates of the law argued that without protection against employer retaliation, employees whose job is to report health and safety issues may be less likely to speak out about problems they learn of. Business groups say that widening the law’s application may make it harder for companies to manage its watchdog employees, according to NJ Spotlight.
The court rejected arguments that the Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA) should not apply 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 â€˜employee’ to restrict the Act’s application and preclude its protection of watchdog employees,” the court ruling said.
The case at issue involved Ethicon Inc., a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson and Dr. Joel Lipman, whose job was to provide medical opinions about the safety of Ethicon’s pharmaceutical products used for surgical procedures. On numerous occasions the doctor had objected to the proposed or continued sale and distribution of different medical products, urging that they should not go to market, should be recalled, or that further research was needed. In April 2006, he recommended a product be recalledâ€”and eventually it wasâ€”but the next month Lipman was fired. The company said he had an inappropriate relationship with someone in a department over which he had authority. He then filed a whistleblower lawsuit, NJ Spotlight reports.
The case initially was dismissed by a lower court but the dismissal was reversed by a state appeals panel. The Supreme Court essentially agreed with the appellate ruling, and also ruled that watchdog employees do not have to demonstrate that they exhausted all internal complaint processes prior to being protected as whistleblowers.
An attorney who filed a brief in the case said, “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, said, “[W]histleblowers [play] a crucial role in identifying hazards and getting them corrected.” He called them “the community’s eyes and ears” and said “they must not be silenced.”