Former New Jersey Prison Official Awarded $7.7 Million in Whistleblower Lawsuit

By Metal_whistle.jpg: Markus Schweiss derivative work: MichaelFrey (Metal_whistle.jpg) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsA jury in a New Jersey superior court awarded $7.7 million in damages to a former prison official in her lawsuit alleging retaliation for cooperating with a federal extortion investigation. Easley v. N.J. Dept. of Corrections, et al., No. L-000094-13, complaint (N.J. Super. Ct., Burlington Co., Jan. 10, 2013). A Department of Corrections deputy commissioner went to prison as a result of the investigation, and the plaintiff alleged that she was terminated by the department in retaliation. The lawsuit asserted claims under state whistleblower protection law, including the Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA), N.J. Rev. Stat. § 34:19-1 et seq. The judgment includes both compensatory and punitive damages.

Common-law whistleblower protections in New Jersey are based on an employer’s duty “not to discharge an employee who refused to perform an act that is a violation of a clear mandate of public policy.” Pierce v. Ortho Pharmaceutical Corp., 84 N.J. 58, 72 (1980). After the New Jersey Legislature enacted the CEPA, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that its protections apply to a wide range of individuals defined as “employees.” D’Annunzio v. Prudential Ins. Co., 192 N.J. 110 (2007). The court has continued to affirm that the statute has broad applicability. See Lippman v. Ethicon, ___ N.J. ___, Nos. A-65/66-13, 073324, slip op. (Jul. 15, 2015).

Several New Jersey statutes contain anti-retaliation provisions. The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD), for example, prohibits retaliation against an employee for inquiring about other employees’ compensation, job title, gender, race, and other factors related to possible NJLAD claims. N.J. Rev. Stat. § 10:5-12(r). The CEPA prohibits retaliation against employees who engage in three categories of conduct:

1. “Disclos[ing], or threaten[ing] to disclose,” internally or externally, illegal or fraudulent conduct by the employer;
2. “Provid[ing] information to, or testif[ying] before, any public body” conducting an inquiry or investigation regarding alleged criminal or fraudulent conduct; or
3. “Object[ing] to, or refus[ing] to participate in any activity, policy or practice which the employee reasonably believes” is illegal, fraudulent, or otherwise contrary to public policy. N.J. Rev. Stat. § 34:19-3.

The plaintiff in Easley had reportedly worked for the New Jersey Department of Corrections for 16 years before she was terminated. She alleged that a former deputy commissioner extorted money from her between 2006 and 2009, demanding money from her in exchange for not laying her off. She participated with the FBI in an investigation of the former official by providing the names of other victims and testifying for the prosecution. The former official was sentenced to 46 months in federal prison in early 2013.

The plaintiff alleged that she was terminated by the department shortly after the former official’s sentencing in retaliation for her cooperation with the FBI. She filed suit in January 2013, alleging violations of the CEPA. The case went to trial in 2015, and a jury awarded her $7.7 million in damages. This includes back pay of $265,000, damages for emotional distress of $1 million, and punitive damages of $6.5 million.

If you need to speak to an attorney about a whistleblower matter in New Jersey or New York, contact the Resnick Law Group online, at 973-781-1204, or at 646-867-7997.

More Blog Posts:

Second Circuit Adopts Broad Definition of “Whistleblower” in Dodd-Frank Retaliation Lawsuit, The New Jersey Employment Law Firm Blog, October 20, 2015

Court Rules for Whistleblower Who Made Internal Report of Alleged Financial Violations, The New Jersey Employment Law Firm Blog, March 19, 2015

Whistleblower Who Exposed Alleged Visa Fraud Files Lawsuit Claiming Retaliation by Employer, The New Jersey Employment Law Firm Blog, January 30, 2015

Photo credit: Metal_whistle.jpg: Markus Schweiss, derivative work: MichaelFrey (Metal_whistle.jpg) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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