NJ Supreme Court Hits a Homerun for Employees in Whistleblower Case

In a recent case, Donelson v. DuPont Chambers Works, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that a plaintiff does not need to prove that he or she was actually or even constructively discharged in order to recover lost wages where an employer’s retaliatory conduct causes an employee to suffer from an emotional condition that renders the employee incapable of working. This is a major step forward for employees who have suffered whistleblower retaliation or discrimination.

In Donelson, the plaintiff, John Seddon, worked for DuPont Chambers Works for about 30 years, primarily responsible for ensuring the safety of employees. In late 2002, Seddon expressed concern to his shift manager about the dangerous manner in which security guards were conducting random searches of employees in the dark alongside passing traffic. When DuPont did nothing to address these safety hazards, Seddon filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”). Seddon then filed subsequent complaints with management about unsafe conditions in the operation of equipment that could produce toxic gas into the atmosphere. In response, Seddon’s supervisor took retaliatory actions against him, including giving him negative evaluations, accusing him of performance deficiencies and subjecting him to constant verbal abuse. Seddon complained to DuPont that he was being targeted for harassment because he complained about these safety issues.

Seddon suffered feelings of worthlessness and began having anxiety attacks as a direct result of this harassment. He sought treatment and took a six-month leave of absence. Seddon, however, never returned to DuPont and was granted a disability pension from the company.

Seddon filed a complaint against DuPont, alleging whistleblower (CEPA) violations and sought damages for loss of earnings and benefits. He was awarded $724,000 for economic losses by the trial court. The Appellate Division reversed and held that an award of lost wages is dependent upon the existence of an actual or constructive discharge and since Seddon retired from DuPont, he could not claim he was discharged.

The Supreme Court in this case gave an expansive interpretation of New Jersey’s whistleblower statute. The Court stated that, based upon the remedial nature of CEPA and its underlying purposes to encourage and protect employees who speak out about their employer’s wrongdoings, this statute should be liberally construed. It found that a plaintiff in a CEPA case need not prove that they were actually or constructively discharged in order to recover back wages or other economic damages where an employer’s retaliatory conduct caused an employee to suffer from an emotional condition that rendered the employee incapable of working.

If you believe you were wrongfully terminated or left a job after suffering a severe emotional condition caused by unjust retaliation, you should consult a reputable employment attorney.