New Jersey Court Explains When a Reduction in Duties May be a Retaliatory Act

Employees are protected under both federal and state law from retaliatory action for reporting the unethical or illegal conduct of their employers. Recovering under a whistleblowing claim can be difficult, as it requires the employee to prove both a retaliatory action and that any explanation the employer offers for the action is mere pretext.

The Superior Court of New Jersey recently explained that while a reduction in work duties is evidence of retaliatory action, a plaintiff must nonetheless provide evidence to refute an employer’s allegations that the reduction was justified for the claim to survive. If your employer unjustly reduced your work duties in retaliation for whistleblowing in violation of the Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA), you should meet with an experienced New Jersey whistleblower attorney to discuss whether you may be able to recover damages.

Facts Regarding the Plaintiff’s Employment

The plaintiff worked as the director of the education opportunity fund (EOF) for the defendant university. Her duties included oversight of the budget. Shortly after she was hired, the plaintiff discovered that EOF funds were allegedly being used to pay the salaries of non-EOF staff, which she reported. The issue was remedied, but the plaintiff was no longer able to access the budget, and her other responsibilities were drastically reduced. While she was still responsible for reviewing the budget and certain expenditures, she felt that her supervisor intended to make her job more difficult if she did not review the budget as submitted. The plaintiff was never forced to approve the budget or threatened with adverse action if she did not approve it, however.

It is reported that the plaintiff subsequently raised concerns to a member of the administration regarding problems with EOF reports and her lack of access to the budget needed to complete the reports, and what she believed was the financial misdirection of her supervisor. Shortly thereafter, the plaintiff received a performance review that indicated she did not meet expectations with regard to collaboration skills. The plaintiff’s colleagues also sent written concerns to her supervisor regarding issues with her timeliness and event planning. Her supervisor then sent her a memo outlining issues with her job performance. She was terminated approximately a year later. The plaintiff filed a whistleblower action against the defendant university, in which she alleged her reporting of the EOF issue changed the way her employer perceived her and ultimately led to her termination. The plaintiff’s case was dismissed via summary judgment. The plaintiff appealed.

Evidence of Retaliatory Action

On appeal, the court stated that while stripping an employee of duties is a retaliatory action under New Jersey law, the trial court did not err in finding that the plaintiff was not stripped of job duties in retaliation for whistleblowing. Specifically, the court found that the plaintiff retained the majority of her duties following her alleged whistleblowing. Further, the court found that the allegations that the plaintiff felt threatened to approve budgets following her report of inappropriate use of funds lacked specificity. The court held that although the plaintiff’s responsibilities shifted, her core duties remained the same and she had no objective or subjective reason to believe she was being punished or retaliated against.

Further, the court noted that even if the plaintiff presented a prima facie case of retaliation, the defendant university presented ample evidence of a legitimate non-retaliatory reason for her termination. The court found the plaintiff had no evidence to support the allegation that the reasons for her termination were pretextual. As such, the court affirmed the trial court ruling.

Meet with a New Jersey Attorney Experienced in Handling Whistleblower Claims

If your employer took adverse action against you in retaliation for reporting illegal or unethical behavior, you may be able to recover damages and should consult an attorney experienced in handling whistleblower claims to discuss your case. The New Jersey Whistleblower attorneys of The Jaffe Glenn Law Group will aggressively advocate on your behalf to help you seek a successful outcome under the facts of your case. Contact us at 201-687-9977 or through our online form to schedule a free and confidential conference.

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