In a recent decision, Hester v. Parker, the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division reminded employers to take their employees’ complaints seriously.
Plaintiff worked for the Winslow Township Board of Education (BOE). He filed an internal complaint, claiming that an African American woman who joined the BOE, discriminated against him on the basis of his race - Caucasian. The school responded to the complaint by informing him that the district’s affirmative action policy did not cover his claim. Plaintiff then contacted the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights.
Shortly after filing his internal complaint, school personnel recommended terminating plaintiff based on his job performance. When he learned of this recommendation, he filed a lawsuit in New Jersey state court against the BOE and the African American BOE member. After he filed the lawsuit, the BOE accepted the recommendation to terminate his employment.
After the trial court dismissed plaintiff’s claims, the Appellate Court reversed. The Appellate Court noted that it hesitated to permit every employee who uses an established dispute resolution or grievance procedure, files a civil complaint, or pursues a claim before an administrative body against his employer to maintain an action under the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA). However, when an employee complains of illegal activity in the workplace, the employer does not remedy the situation, and the employee thereafter files a complaint alleging violation of clearly mandated standards, the filing of the complaint may be a whistle-blowing activity. The Court explained that this filing is an attempt to draw attention to and obtain a remedy for a personal wrong or improper conduct.
This case shows the importance of taking employee complaints seriously. If an employer seeks to terminate an employee who files an internal complaint, the employer should conduct a through investigation. If the employer finds that the complaint has no merit, the employer is still subject to a possible retaliation claim. To help defend against such claims, the employer must possess strong documentation to justify the termination.