Managers and HR may be personally liable for CEPA mistakes

The New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA) protects employees who report illegal activity. Punishing someone for exercising CEPA rights is also illegal—and supervisors who participate in that punishment may be personally liable for the violation. Simply put, their personal assets are at stake. If HR is complicit, so are yours.

Recent case: David Gunnings worked as a police officer in Woodlynne. One day, the mayor demanded to know whether Gunnings had written a traffic ticket to the girlfriend of a City Council member. Gunnings hadn’t, but a fellow officer had.

The mayor pushed for the ticket’s dismissal—and Gunnings expressed his opinion that “ticket fixing” is illegal. After the incident, he failed to get a promotion he was in line for.

Gunnings claimed the denied promotion was punishment for complaining about the fixed ticket. But he didn’t just sue the police department—he sued the mayor and others involved in making the promotion decision.

The defendants argued that CEPA does not call for personal liability. The federal court hearing the case disagreed. Although he acknowledged that the New Jersey Supreme Court had not ruled directly on the issue yet, the judge followed other court interpretations and said there was individual liability. (Gunnings v. Borough of Woodlynne, et al., No. 05-5459, DC NJ, 2007)

FMLA Compliance D

Final note: Worried about potential personal liability? You should be, and not just under CEPA. Several federal laws, including the Fair Labor Standards Act and the FMLA, provide for personal liability for willful violations. Protect yourself by asking for clear legal guidance before making a decision.