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The New Jersey Supreme Court has handed disgruntled employees a big weapon to use against their employers.

In a 5-2 decision, the court ruled that Joyce Quinlan was within her rights to photocopy company documents—some of which were confidential—to use in a lawsuit against Curtiss-Wright, the aerospace company where she once served as executive director of human resources.

Quinlan’s copyfest began after Curtiss-Wright promoted a male colleague whom she believed to be less qualified than her. To make her gender discrimination case, Quinlan copied more than 1,800 documents, including a scathing performance review of the man who beat her out for the promotion. Quinlan then gave the documents to her attorney.

When the documents showed up in legal proceedings against the company, it fired Quinlan for copying them. Curtiss-Wright said Quinlan had signed a confidentiality agreement barring her from using company documents for personal purposes.

In 2007, a jury awarded Quinlan $10.6 million in damages and fees. An appellate court threw out part of the award in 2009, ruling that the company was within its rights to fire Quinlan because she copied the documents. 

On appeal, the Supreme Court ruled that Quinlan used the documents only for her case and did not release them to anyone other than her attorney. Therefore, she argued, her firing was not justified. The case will now go back to an appellate court to determine whether the punitive damages awarded by the original jury were justified.

Note: This decision poses large problems for employers. Essentially, it gives employees the go-ahead to copy company documents, as long as they only use them to sue their employers. Employment law experts are still studying the implications of the Supreme Court’s decision. For now, consult with your attorney when structuring company policy on employee access to and use of confidential documents.

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