Julius Beasley v. Passiac County

On May 26, 2005 the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division in Julius Beasley v. Passiac County reviewed New Jersey’s Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA) and in particular what types of employee grievances fall under the protections of CEPA. The Court’s decision illustrates that although CEPA protects employees who object to illegal behavior, it is not an absolute bar to termination or other negative employment actions against the employee.

The Court noted that there are no “magic words” which must be communicated by an employee for him or her to fall under the protections of CEPA. Rather, the employee’s objection must only demonstrate the employee had a reasonable belief of illegal activity and that he or she was objecting to such activity. This “reasonable” standard is consistent with the remedial nature of the Act; the object of which is “not to make lawyers out of conscientious employees but rather to prevent retaliation against those who object to employer conduct that they reasonably believe to be unlawful.” As such, an employee need not point to a specific law, rule, regulation or other mandate of public policy when voicing his complaint.

Although the Court’s opinion focused on protections afforded to objecting employees by CEPA, the decision also emphasized that a CEPA complaint does not grant an employee a shield from all termination or other negative employment action. CEPA’s protections are designed to protect an objecting employee from “discrimination” or “retaliation” for voicing his or her objection, but does not protect against employer actions that merely “result in a bruised ego or injured pride on the part of the employee.”

In light of Beasley, employers should be mindful that employees making CEPA complaints are afforded a degree of protection from discharge, suspension, demotion or other “adverse employment action” effecting the terms and conditions of their employment. However, the Act does not insulate the employee from all such employment actions – only those which are the result of the employee’s complaint.