Schorr & Associates’ Employment Case of The Week ending October 28, 2016

Goodwin v. New Jersey Department of Education, A-5321-14T3, 2016 N.J. Super. Unpub LEXIS 2332 (App. Div. October 25, 2016)

Don’t even think about filing a CEPA Complaint one day late in New Jersey.  In Goodwin v. New Jersey Department of Education, an unpublished decision from the New Jersey Appellate Division, the Court refused to reverse the dismissal of a case that was brought exactly one day too late.

Ralph Goodwin was the interim business administrator for Morris County.  He filed a complaint on December 4, 2013 pursuant to the Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA) alleging that he was terminated on December 4, 2012 in retaliation for providing testimony related to an employment contract.  One problem: it turns out that Mr. Goodwin was actually terminated on December 3, 2012, not December 4.

After discovery, the parties eventually stipulated that Mr. Goodwin was terminated on December 3, 2012, and the Defendants filed for summary judgment based upon violation of CEPA’s one year statute of limitations.  Judge Thomas C. Miller of Somerset County dismissed the Complaint with prejudice.  Goodwin had argued that the Court should deny the motion based upon the doctrine of substantial compliance.  The doctrine of substantial compliance is an equitable doctrine designed “to avoid technical defeats of valid claims”.  There are five elements to a substantial compliance defense: (1) lack of prejudice to the defending party; (2) a series of steps taken to comply with the statute involved; (3) a general compliance with the purpose of the statute; (4) a reasonable notice of petitioner’s claim; and (5) a reasonable explanation why there was not strict compliance with the statute.  The Court found no merit to plaintiff’s argument that these elements excused Goodwin’s failure to file on time.

Even if Goodwin believed that he was fired on December 4, 2012, it is reckless to wait until the very last day to beat a statute of limitations, and this case is a poster child for such unnecessary procrastination.  Even worse, it appears that Goodwin did not file a Pierce claim.  A Pierce claim is a New Jersey common law wrongful retaliatory termination claim that provides most of the same damages, most notably omitting attorney’s fees.  Pierce claims have a two year statute of limitations.  So even if the CEPA claim had been filed late, there still would have been an opportunity to amend for an entire year in order to add the Pierce claim and save the case.

Appellate Judges: Fuentes and Carroll.

In other employment law news, this column has been following the case of McQueary v. Penn State.  See prior blog posts [10/5/12; year end 12/31/12]. McQueary is the Assistant Football Coach who was terminated by Penn State after he testified to the Grand Jury that he had reported that Jerry Sandusky has been abusing children.  This week, after a two week trial, a Centre County jury deliberated for four hours and awarded $7.3 million to McQueary for his defamation claims.  The trial judge has yet to rule on McQueary’s whistleblower claim, but it looks like a big victory for McQueary on what had always appeared to be no-brainer of a lawsuit.