The New Jersey Supreme Court refused to give a New Jersey public employee a second bite at the apple. It held that the rejection of a claim of employer retaliation in a civil service disciplinary proceeding should bar the employee from seeking to circumvent that discipline through a subsequent Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA) action also alleging retaliation.
The Facts of the Case
In Winters v. North Bergen Regional Fire & Rescue, A-45/46/47-10, the plaintiff, Steven Winters, was terminated from his position with North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue following two close-in-time proceedings involving separate disciplinary matters before the Civil Service Commission (Commission). The first resulted in a demotion and the imposition of a sixty-day suspension.
The second proceeding involved a distinct set of charges relating to plaintiff’s abuse of sick leave by working two other public-sector jobs while receiving public benefits. The Commission ultimately determined that the plaintiff had committed conduct unbecoming a public employee. In light of the “egregious” nature of the misconduct, it concluded removal was the appropriate discipline.
After the plaintiff’s appeal of the Commission’s decision was unsuccessful, he also filed a CEPA action claiming that his termination was retaliatory. North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue sought summary judgment on the basis that estoppel principles should bar the action.
The Court’s Ruling
The New Jersey Supreme Court agreed that allowing the plaintiff a second opportunity to pursue the claim would run afoul of the doctrine of collateral estoppel. As explained in the majority opinion, “If an employee and employer engage the system of public employee discipline established by law and the employee raises a claim that employer retaliation at least partially motivated the decision to bring the charge or the level of discipline sought, then both the employee and employer must live with the outcome, including its potential preclusive effect on related employment-discrimination litigation as a matter of the equitable application of estoppel principles.”
“We therefore put users of the public employment system of employee discipline on notice that integration of employer-retaliation claims should be anticipated and addressed where raised as part of the discipline review process,” the court stated. “It is unseemly to have juries second-guessing major public employee discipline imposed after litigation is completed before the Commission to which the Legislature has entrusted review of such judgments,” the justices added.
For additional information about this case, please contact a member of Scarinci Hollenbeck’s Public Law Group.