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New Jersey’s CEPA Held Inapplicable to Employee Whose Job Involved Whistleblower Activity

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for above-the-bar-logo.jpgThe New Jersey Appellate Division recently ruled that a Starbucks employee who reported workplace violations was not a whistleblower because it was her job to report and address such violations. The New Jersey Supreme Court has been asked to review this ruling which could have far reaching implications on NJ’s whistleblower statute.

The case, White v. Starbucks, involved an employee, Kari White who was a former district manager. White began working for Starbucks in 2006 and was forced to resign in March of 2007. White claimed that she was fired for reporting workplace activities that were in violation of company policy and law. Some of these included complaints of reporting missing store merchandise, unsanitary conditions at one of the branches, employees drinking alcohol while on the job, after hour sex parties, employees e-mailing pornographic images, and complaints about leaving space between tables and chairs for wheelchair accessibility. Starbucks claimed that she was fired for her aggressive managerial style.

White brought suit under New Jerseys’s whistleblower statute, Conscientious Employee Protection Act (“CEPA”), which prevents employers from retaliating against an employee for reporting illegal or fraudulent activities. CEPA’s intent is to protect and encourage employees to report illegal and unethical workplace activities as well as discourage public and private sector employees from engaging in such conduct.

The Court found that White’s job duties as a District Manager required her to “regularly and customarily exercise discretion in managing the overall operation of the stores within her district including overseeing the district’s store management workforce, making management staffing decisions, ensuring district-wide customer satisfaction and product quality, and managing safety and security within the district.” Since it was White’s job to tell her superiors about any violations she observed at the stores in her charge and make sure that they were corrected, the Court held that she could not bring suit under CEPA. In other words, as a district store manager, it was White’s job to perform whistleblowing activities.

Considered to be a very broad statute, the NJ Appellate Court’s decision here substantially limits CEPA’s scope and reach. You are only entitled to file a CEPA claim and have its protection if you are a true whistleblower. If your job duties involve reporting violations of law, you cannot bring a CEPA claim. Although White’s job duties involved whistleblowing activities, the problem here is that she reported the improper and illegal conduct and tried to correct. Contrary to CEPA’s intent, in the end, she was terminated. The problem with the Court’s decision is that it doesn’t protect you from retaliation when you are trying to do what is right.

Our experienced Whistleblower Attorneys have helped many employees evaluate and determine the strength of their whistleblower claims. If you have observed illegal or fraudulent activity at your workplace, don’t let the Starbucks ruling discourage you from reporting illegal activity. Call our Whistleblower Attorneys at Villanueva & Sanchala at (800) 893-9645 to discuss your possible options and determine if you have a whistleblower claim under CEPA or under the federal False Claims Act.

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