In the state of New Jersey and around the country, there are hundreds of lawsuits either in progress or about to be filed by employees subjected to unsafe conditions in the face of COVID-19. New Jersey’s Conscientious Employee Protection Act, or CEPA, was specifically enacted to prohibit employers from “taking any retaliatory action against an employee” who “objects to, or refuses to participate in, any activity, policy or practice which the employee reasonably believes … is incompatible with a clear mandate of public policy concerning the public health, safety or welfare.”
To understand the issues at hand and the rights of employees concerned about the lack of COVID-19 precautions, consider a case that was recently heard by the Superior Court of New Jersey, Essex County. It involves a claim filed by Marc Loeb, the former Chief Operating Officer of Vantage Custom Classics Incorporated, an apparel manufacturer. Loeb had accused the company and its CEO, Ira Neaman, of terminating him in retaliation for his insistence on the company following guidelines and executive orders to keep workers safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. In his claim he recounted various requests he had made for the company to put worker protections in place in response to the pandemic starting on or about March 2nd, 2020 and proceeding through March 19th, 2020, when in response to insisting that workers be advised of a colleague’s COVID-19 diagnosis so that they could protect themselves, he was told “today is your last day.”
In response to Loeb’s CEPA lawsuit the company filed a motion to dismiss, insisting that there was no “specific law, regulation or clear mandate of public policy” in existence when he had pushed for greater worker protections, and that therefore he had no grounds to justify his claim under CEPA. They argued that he was basing his actions on suggestions or guidance — statements as to what companies “can” or “should” do for safety rather than what they “must” do.
In handing down its decision to deny the employer’s motion to dismiss and allow the case to proceed, the Superior Court began by echoing the words of the New Jersey Supreme Court regarding CEPA — that its goal was “not to make lawyers out of conscientious employees but rather to prevent retaliation against those employees who object to employer conduct that they reasonably believe to be unlawful or indisputably dangerous to public health, safety or welfare.” They then went on to agree with Loeb that numerous regulations had been issued by the CDC and OSHA and executive orders from New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy both before and after his termination, and that this was enough of a basis to justify invoking the CEPA laws. They also pointed out that the company having complied with several of his suggestions prior to his termination was an indication that the things he had requested were for the benefit of all of the company’s employees.
If you have faced an adverse employment action as a result of trying to protect yourself or others in your workplace from an unsafe environment, you may be eligible to file a lawsuit under New Jersey’s CEPA laws. For more information, contact us today to discuss your situation.