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The Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey has reversed a trial judge’s the dismissal of a whistleblower lawsuit brought by a former licensed nurse of Rutgers University School of Biomedical and Health Sciences, which used to be the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (Rutgers). This court’s decision will revive the ex-nurses lawsuit and allow her claims of whistleblower retaliation under New Jersey’s Conscientious Employee Protection Act to proceed to trial.

IMG_3469-300x169Ms. Herbe worked as a licensed nurse at Rutgers since 2009 and had recently been promoted to the position of Clinical Nurse Coordinator for the Child Health Program. Over the course of three days, when she and two coworkers along with their supervisor were assigned to audit patient charts, the supervisor admittedly abandoned that task and brought one of Ms. Herbe’s coworkers along with her to help her fill out an application to Rutgers’ graduate nursing program. Ms. Herbe reported her supervisor for theft of time, among other rule violations, via an anonymous employee hotline. The Business Manager for the Child Health Program investigated Ms. Herbe’s anonymous allegations and found them to be credible. Both the supervisor and coworker were disciplined, including loss of leave benefit time and removal of the supervisor’s application from consideration by the graduate program.

Immediately after they were disciplined, Ms. Herbe’s supervisor began to harass her by making comments about her being “a mole”, meeting with Ms. Herbe’s team without her, asking them for “dirt on her”, changing the reporting requirements that Ms. Herbe had put in place for her team, yelling at her in front of new employees and generally trying to undermine her authority. The supervisor also wrote her up for leaving work early and other infractions that Ms. Herbe claims never occurred. Ms. Herbe also began receiving poor performance evaluations for the first time in her four years working at Rutgers.

Many of us have heard of employee whistleblowers who go public with their employer’s egregious wrongdoings and suffer job loss or other retaliation for doing so. Both the federal government and the State of New Jersey offer protections to these conscientious employees.  For example, a federal law called the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989 protects employees who disclose evidence of illegal or improper governmental activities. In New Jersey, we have enacted the Conscientious Employee Protection Act, which is viewed as one of the furthest reaching whistleblower laws in the country. Whistleblower laws such as these were enacted to assure that employees have protections when they do the right thing and oppose unlawful activity of their employer.  We, as a society, belief that employers and the government must play within the rules to protect people from being harmed from dangerous situations that can be caused by unlawful conduct.

IMG_3937-300x169There is perhaps no better example of the importance that whistleblowers can play in stopping governmental behavior that can cause harm to people than the allegations that Dr. Rick Bright has made against the government concerning its COVID-19 response. Dr. Bright was recently ousted from his prominent position as Director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) for what he alleges was in retaliation for disclosing certain violations of law, gross mismanagement and waste of funds, abuse of authority and substantial and specific danger to public health and safety of the government in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Dr. Rick Bright recently began making headlines when he went public with his Complaint alleging Whistleblower Retaliation filed with the United States Office of Special Counsel. In the lengthy filing, Dr. Bright alleges that he was fired from his position within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) after he refused to spend money on unproven and potentially dangerous drugs that the White House was touting as promising treatments for Covid-19, and he resisted pressure to put in place a national program geared toward expanding public access to those drugs.

A New Jersey Appellate Division has denied an appeal of a whistleblower verdict in favor of a state employee against her former employer the State Department of Corrections.  The plaintiff, Meg Yatauro, brought her claim under the New Jersey whistleblower law known as the Conscientious Employee Protection Act, alleging that she suffered adverse employment action as a result of objecting to several improprieties over the period of years concerning the misuse of public funds.  After a lengthy trial, the jury agreed that Ms. Yatauro was retaliated for her whistleblowing activities and awarded her $1,000,000 in damages for emotional distress and economic losses.

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In this case entitled Meg Yatauro v. State of New Jersey, Gary M. Lanigan, Judy Lang, Mark Farsi, the plaintiff, Ms. Yatauro, began working for the Department of Corrections in civil service positions in 1984.  After nineteen years, Ms. Yatauro was promoted to the assistant superintendent position at Northern State Prison.  She was later transferred to Mid-State Correctional Facility, which she remained for two years, before being transferred to Central Reception and Assignment Facility, where she was promoted to associate administrator.  In 2012, Ms. Yatauro was transferred to the Albert C. Wagner Youth Correction Facility in an administrator position, where she alleged the whistleblowing and resulting retaliation took place.

The judge permitted Ms. Yatauro to present evidence of several whistleblowing events to the jury during the trial.  First, Plaintiff complained to her supervisor concerning the Chief of the Special Investigations Division having his Trenton office painted using funds out of the correction facilities budget at a time it had its own urgent need for repairs.  Another complaint was aslo related to an issue of misuse of funds involving another supervisor made unauthorized credit card purchases and permitted maintenance staff to work overtime without Ms. Yatauro’s approval.

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