U.S. Third Circuit - The FindLaw 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries Blog

No Victim Needed for Workplace Discrimination, Says NJ Sup Ct

Last week, the New Jersey Supreme Court handed down a decision that could have wide ranging repercussions for employers. Faced with determining several issues surrounding a discrimination claim, and its retaliatory responses, the New Jersey Supreme Court offered some clarity to employers, and employees alike.

Plaintiff Michael Battaglia at one point supervised defendant Wayne DeCraine, where he reprimanded DeCraine for making off-color comments about women. Because of Battaglia’s illness and time off from work, years later DeCraine ended up as Battaglia’s direct supervisor. Battaglia again heard DeCraine make derogatory statements about women, but only in the presence of men. These comments were the basis of a Law Against Discrimination (LAD) claim that Battaglia brought against UPS and DeCraine.

Battaglia also complained about alleged misuse of company credit cards, and authored an anonymous letter to the HR department vaguely alleging improper conduct. Battaglia himself did not feel that the misconduct was fraudulent, but UPS investigated the claims anyway. These acts formed the basis for Battaglia's claim under the Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA).

In contrast to the Appellate Division, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that Battaglia need not present an actual victim of discrimination, in this case a woman, because that requirement would conflict with the purpose of the LAD.

The court stated: "We would ill serve those important purposes [of ending discrimination] were we to demand that one who voices complaints as did plaintiff in this matter, and who suffers retaliation as a consequence, also prove there is a separate, identifiable victim of actual discrimination." The court did note however, that for Battaglia to receive damages for future emotional distress, he would need to provide evidence of permanency through expert testimony.

Regarding his CEPA claim, the court took a more unsympathetic view. The court reiterated that CEPA was not intended to protect employees' "[v]ague and conclusory complaints, complaints about trivial or minor matters, or generalized workplace unhappiness." Here, the court found that Battaglia did not provide sufficient evidence, and he himself did not think the acts he complained of were fraudulent.

The court did take issue with the trial court's CEPA jury charge and noted: "When instructing juries, trial courts must be vigilant in identifying the essential complaint made by the employee in order that the jury will be able to test it against the standards that the law imposes as a prerequisite to recovery."

This case is significant because it clarifies protected activity in the employment discrimination and retaliation. Employees should also take note and make sure their claims are specific enough. Companies should examine their corporate policies regarding how they handle, and investigate, employee complaints.

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