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Beasley v. Passaic County

377 N.J. Super. 585, 873 A.2d 673 (App. Div. 2005)

EMPLOYER-EMPLOYEE; RETALIATION—Under the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act, an employee need not have been fired or demoted to have a viable claim; a pattern of conduct by an employer, such as multiple suspensions, that adversely affects an employee’s terms of employment may constitute retaliation.

A man began working at a county juvenile detention center as a detention officer. One year later, he was promoted to a supervisory position. Shortly thereafter, he testified before the board of freeholders that he felt the county had taken too long to promote him to the supervisory position. Beginning after his appearance before the board, and over the course of the next couple of years, the man began to experience changes in his superiors’ behavior towards him. His immediate supervisor told him that if he continued to complain about his job in public, he would never be able to get employment in the county again. The man then became the target of retaliation. He was suspended several times without cause and was the only officer at the center who had been barred from voluntary overtime. The man then filed an incident report with his superiors about the need for more staff at the center. After he filed the report, he was suspended without pay. The man once again appeared before the board of freeholders where he complained about the center’s staffing needs and the poor leadership and management at the center. The man continued to receive warnings and have his pay docketed. He then filed a complaint against the county, the center, and his supervisors for violation of the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA) and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD). He also filed actions alleging that he had been subjected to emotional distress, a hostile work environment, and various torts. All of the actions were dismissed by pre-trial motions with the exception of the man’s CEPA claim. The lower court bifurcated the trial and one jury ruled in favor of the man on the issue of liability, finding that the county had retaliated against the man through disciplinary actions, investigations, withholding salary increases, and opposing his worker’s compensation claim. The other jury awarded the man damages, prejudgment interest, interest for the delay in receiving his pay raise, attorneys’ fees, and costs. The county appealed the liability judgment. The man cross-appealed, asserting that the lower court erred by dismissing his other claims and by bifurcating the trial.

On appeal, the county argued that the man failed to establish a viable claim under CEPA because he was not demoted or terminated by the center. The Court rejected this argument, holding that CEPA does not require that an employer’s retaliatory behavior be either a demotion or termination. It ruled that retaliatory behavior under CEPA includes other adverse employment action such as discharges and suspensions, all of which can effect an employee’s compensation and job rank. As a result, the Court concluded that the man successfully established his retaliation claim under CEPA.

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