NJ Appellate Court Limits Scope of Whistleblower Claims

The Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey recently ruled that an employee who blows the whistle on illegal or unethical employer conduct does not qualify as a “whistleblower” if her part of her job duties is to monitor such conduct.

The case, White v. Starbucks Corp, et. al., involved a former Starbucks District Manager, Kari White, who started working for Starbucks in 2006. White claimed she was fired for whistleblowing about various workplace activities that violated the law and company policy. Some of these activities include reporting missing store merchandise, unsanitary conditions at the Newark branch, alcohol consumption by employees while on the job, after-hours sex parties, employees emailing pornographic images, and complaining about the Westfield branch’s tables and chairs not leaving enough space for a wheelchair. White alleged that Starbucks forced her to resign from her position in March 2007 after she complained about these activities. Starbucks argued that White was terminated due to her aggressive managerial style.

White sued Starbucks Corp. under CEPA, the law which prevents employers from taking retaliatory action against employees who report unethical workplace activities. CEPA serves two major public policy objectives: 1) protecting and encouraging employees to report illegal and unethical workplace activities and 2) discouraging public and private sector employees from engaging in such conduct.

The Court dismissed White’s CEPA claim by relying heavily on an earlier case which held that an employee may not bring a claim under CEPA if they are engaging in acts which are already a part of their job duties.

Here, White’s job duties as a District Manager required that she “regularly and customarily exercise discretion in managing the overall operation of the stores within her district including overseeing the district’s store management workforce, making management staffing decisions, ensuring district-wide customer satisfaction and product quality, and managing safety and security within the district.” The Court stated that it was White’s job to communicate with her superiors about any violations occurring at the stores she oversaw, and ensure that these violations were addressed and corrected. Therefore, the Court concluded that CEPA is inapplicable in White’s case.

The New Jersey Supreme Court has been asked to review the Appellate Division’s decision. If the State Supreme Court is to further affirm the notion that employees cannot bring a CEPA claim if whistleblowing activities are already a part of their job duties, the policy implications can be far reaching and possibly even thwart the objectives of CEPA. Limiting the scope of CEPA as the Court has clearly done in White v. Starbucks Corp., et. al., does not serve as a deterrent against employers taking retaliatory action against employees trying to do the right thing in the workplace. Further, employers could strategically word job duties to include vague and broad language that would bar employees from later bringing a CEPA claim. We hope the NJ Supreme Court will overturn this decision and keep the policy objectives of CEPA intact.