Employees who report or object to practices that they believe to be illegal or contrary to public policy are commonly known as “whistleblowers.” Some of the biggest cases of fraud and corruption in recent history—both in government and in the private sector—have resulted from whistleblower reports. Employees and other insiders are often in the best position to provide evidence of wrongdoing, but doing so can pose great risk to their own jobs. Numerous laws therefore protect whistleblowers from retaliation, including New Jersey’s Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA). A lawsuit filed in New Jersey alleges that an automobile manufacturer retaliated against the plaintiff, in violation of CEPA, after he reported concerns to several supervisors and managers about possibly deceptive practices. Williams v. Tesla, Inc. et al., No. BUR-L-000194-18, complaint (N.J. Super. Ct., Burlington Cty., Jan. 26, 2018); removed to No. 1:18-cv-04120 (D.N.J., Mar. 23, 2018).Under CEPA, employers may not retaliate against an employee who reports suspected illegal, fraudulent, or otherwise wrongful conduct to a supervisor or a public body, including law enforcement, regulatory agencies, and legislative bodies. Retaliation is also prohibited if an employee participates in a public investigation of allegedly fraudulent or illegal activity, such as by testifying or providing other information; or if an employee “objects to, or refuses to participate in” acts that the employee believes to be illegal or in violation of public policy. N.J. Rev. Stat. 34:19-3. Aggrieved employees can file suit, and remedies may include reinstatement, lost wages, attorney’s fees and costs, and injunctive relief. Id. at § 34:19-5.
The defendant in Williams manufactures electric-powered automobiles and sells them to the general public. The plaintiff states in his complaint that he began working for the defendant in 2011. He claims that he became aware that the defendant “fail[ed] to disclose to consumers high-dollar, pre-delivery damage repairs prior to any transaction with consumers.” Williams, complaint at 2. The plaintiff “believed this practice to be illegal and/or fraudulent.” Id. He also allegedly learned that the defendant would “receiv[e] vehicles designated as ‘lemons,’” a term referring to a car with irreparable defects. Id. The plaintiff claims that the defendant would sell these vehicles to consumers without disclosing their “lemon” status, as required by state law. See N.J. Rev. Stat. § 56:12-35.
The plaintiff alleges that he reported his concerns to his direct supervisor, a regional manager, and a vice president in late 2016 and early 2017. He was working as a regional manager at that time. The supervisor and the regional manager reported to a director identified in the plaintiff’s complaint. The plaintiff claims that this director demoted him from regional manager to service manager, allegedly telling the plaintiff that he had “a ‘brand’ at the company and that there was no place for” him there. Williams at 3. The director allegedly demoted him again in July 2017, and he claims that a regional manager terminated him in September of that year, offering only pretextual reasons.