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Public Policy Retaliation (Pierce)

What Does It Mean If a Firing Violates Public Policy?

In 1980, our State Supreme Court declared, in Pierce v. Ortho Pharmaceutical Corp., 84 N.J 58 (1980), that it is unlawful for employers to fire their workers in violation of a clear mandate of public policy. Those types of cases have since come to be known as Pierce claims and preceded our state whistleblower’s law by six years. When viewed through a historical lens, Pierce claims created a way for at-will employees to claim that their firings were illegal because they violated an implied (unspoken) duty owed by employers to their workers involving issues that are generally recognized as sufficiently important. Once CEPA, New Jersey’s whistleblower law, was enacted, those claims largely took the place of Pierce claims. But New Jersey retaliation attorneys at Lenzo & Reis understand that Pierce claims still exist today. Today, such claims may be brought when employees are fired for raising issues about their employers’ conduct, which conduct the employees reasonably believe violates a public policy but not a law. Such claims may also be pursued when a professional code of ethics gives rise to a public policy claim. Lastly, employees may pursue Pierce claims when the claim would have been protected under the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA), our State whistleblower law, but was not timely filed. The Conscientious Employee Protection Act requires claims to be brought within 1 year of the retaliatory act whereas a fired employee has 2 years to bring a Pierce claim. It is important to understand that employees who think they may have a whistleblower claim should talk to a qualified whistleblowing attorney, like the attorneys at Lenzo & Reis, immediately because there are significant benefits to bringing a CEPA claim that are not available to individuals pursuing Pierce claims.

What Are Some Examples of Pierce-Type Claims?
  • In 2013, a teacher at a private school successfully asserted a Pierce claim after he was fired for his consensual and private sexual conduct. Savoie v. The Lawrenceville School, 2013 WL 1492859 (App. Div. Apr. 12, 2013).
  • In 1991, the court found that an employee who was fired after being forced to undergo an unconstitutional drug test had successfully brought a Pierce Hennessey v. Coastal Eagle Point Oil Co., 247 N.J. Super. 297 (App. Div. 1990)
  • In 1988, the Third Circuit found in Radwan v. Beecham Laboratories, 850 F. 2d 147 (3d Cir. 1988), found the existence of a Pierce claim for wrongful termination when the employee was fired because he refused a supervisor’s instruction to place an illegal object on a co-worker to set that co-worker up to be terminated.
  • Also, in 1988, the Appellate Division, in Potter v. Village Bank, 225 N.J. Super. 547 (App. Div. 1988) found that the firing of a bank employee who reported suspected money laundering successfully asserted a Pierce claim because his firing violated a clear mandate of public policy.
  • In another Pierce case in 1988, the Appellate Division found that an employee who was fired for reporting chlorine exposure at gas was fired in violation of public policy. Cerracchio v. Alden Leeds, Inc., 223 N.J. Super. 435, 445 (App. Div. 1988).
  • In Velantzas v. Colgate-Palmolive Co., 109 N.J. 189 (1988), the Supreme Court of New Jersey found that an employee’s firing violated public policy because the employee was fired for requesting her personnel files, which she did to establish that she was being discriminated against on the basis of her gender.
  • In 1981, the Supreme Court of New Jersey found that an employee, who was fired for filing a workers’ compensation claim, was fired in violation of a clear mandate of public policy so as to successfully set forth a Pierce claim in Lally v. Copygraphics, 85 N.J. 668 (1981).
What Examples Are There of Firings That Do Not Result in Successful Pierce Claims?

Courts have found that entirely private disputes and/or disagreements between employees and employers do not give rise to Pierce claims.  Similarly, opposing an employer’s policy, without more, will not result in a successful Pierce claim.

What Should I Do If I Believe That I Was Fired in Violation of Public Policy?

Being fired is incredibly stressful especially when you were fired for trying to do the right thing. You do not need to suffer in silence. If you believe that you were fired in violation of a clear mandate of public policy, you should contact the experienced lawyers at New Jersey’s wrongful termination law firm, Lenzo & Reis, by phone at (973) 845-9922 or e-mail. Our retaliation attorneys have successfully helped hundreds of New Jersey employees who were unlawfully fired, and we can help you, too.

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