The New Jersey Superior Court has reversed a large jury award previously won by a whistle-blower because the employer never fired the employee or forced him to quit.
Recent case: Joseph Donelson worked for DuPont until he retired. While working for the company, he complained to both OSHA and DuPontabout what he believed were safety violations.
Donelson claimed his complaints went unanswered and that the company began a harassment campaign designed to punish him for his reports.
The alleged harassment included lunch and vacation restrictions and constant scrutiny. He said the company ordered a mental evaluation and forced him to take a paid medical leave. He finally retired. Then he sued, alleging that he had been retaliated against under New Jersey’s Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA).
A jury awarded Donelson $724,000 in compensatory damages for lost earnings and another $500,000 in punitive damages. He received nothing for pain and suffering, even though he had claimed that his employer’s harassment essentially caused a nervous breakdown, forcing him to retire.
DuPont appealed, arguing that since Donelson had neither been fired nor had to endure conditions severe enough to force him to quit, he wasn’t entitled to lost wages.
The court agreed and overturned the award. Since Donelson didn’t get lost wages, he also couldn’t get punitive damages.
Donelson got nothing—not even the $500,000 in attorneys’ fees the lower court had awarded. (Donelson v. DuPont, No. A-2020-08, Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, 2010)
Final note: The CEPA does allow employees to collect damages for pain and suffering, including harassment that causes emotional distress. But the jury said DuPont hadn’t caused emotional harm.