What Happens When a Whistleblower Gets Fired For Whistleblowing?

By Eric B. Meyer

Is it whistleblowing when your job is to report violations of the law?

That is the question that a former Starbucks employee is asking the New Jersey Supreme Court to answer. It also raises questions about what it means for actions asserted under New Jersey’s Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA).

CEPA is remedial legislation, designed to encourage employees to report illegal or unethical workplace activities and to discourage public and private sector employers from engaging in such conduct. But what happens when that is your job — to report illegal or unethical workplace activities?

A whistleblower fired for whistleblowing

While employed at Starbucks, Kari White’s job was to ensure that her co-workers adhered to legal and operational compliance requirements. During the course of her employment, Ms. White reported both theft and health and safety issues to her superiors. She also reported that employees were boozing on the job and, in the Iselin, New Jersey store, were having after-hours sex parties.

Ms. White was ultimately faced with the decision to quit or get fired. She chose the former, filed a police report, and sued Starbucks for a CEPA violation. The trial court dismissed her CEPA claim. And, in this decision (White v. Starbucks Corporation), the New Jersey Appellate Division concluded that Ms. White did not engage in whistle-blowing activity because “the issues on which she bases her claim fall within the sphere of her job-related duties.”

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Mary Pat Gallagher at the New Jersey Law Journal reports here (subscription required) that Ms. White has since filed a brief with the New Jersey Supreme Court, asking that it reverse the Appellate Division’s decision.

Gallagher reports that, in Ms. White’s brief to the Supreme Court, she describes the Appellate Division’s decision as a “monumental change in the law that could severely restrict the scope of CEPA and thwart its public policy purposes.” I’m not so sure how monumental this is, but certainly one I’ll watch and report on if the Supreme Court takes the case.

Eric Meyer will be leading a group of HR pros in a panel discussion on Social Media in the Workplace – Where is it Today, Where is it Going Tomorrow? at the TLNT Transform conference in Austin, TX Feb. 26-28, 2012. Click here for more information on this event. 

This was originally published on Eric B. Meyer’s blog, The Employer Handbook.

You know that scientist in the action movie who has all the right answers if only the government would just pay attention? Eric B. Meyer, Esq. gets companies HR-compliant before the action sequence. Serving clients nationwide, Eric is a Partner at FisherBroyles, LLP, which is the largest full-service, cloud-based law firm in the world, with approximately 210 attorneys in 21 offices nationwide. Eric is also a volunteer EEOC mediator, a paid private mediator, and publisher of The Employer Handbook (www.TheEmployerHandbook.com), which is pretty much the best employment law blog ever. That, and he's been quoted in the British tabloids. #Bucketlist.

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