The Supreme Court of New Jersey in Battaglia v. United Parcel Service, Inc., A-86/87-11 (July 17, 2013) restricted  what constitutes “protected activity” under New Jersey’s Conscientious Employee Protection Act (“CEPA”) and New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”).  The court made clear that being a gadfly critical of co-workers conduct does not reach the type of wrong-doing envisioned by CEPA. 

Battaglia claimed that his employer, United Parcel Service (“UPS”) demoted him in retaliation for complaining about his boss using crude and obscene language to describe female employees to other men and about his boss flirting with female employees.  He also complained about managers abusing company credit cards in violation of company policy, which behavior he believed to be fraudulent.

A jury found UPS liable for retaliation in violation of the LAD and CEPA.  The Appellate Division affirmed the CEPA verdict and reversed the LAD verdict.  UPS Appealed to the New Jersey Supreme Court.

The high court struck down the CEPA verdict but reinstated the LAD verdict.  In what employers will view as a win, the Court stated that vague and conclusory complaints, complaints about trivial or minor matters, or generalized workplace unhappiness are not the sort of things that the Legislature intended to be protected by CEPA.  The Court further confirmed that an employee must have a reasonable belief that the complained-of activity was fraudulent and that he or she reported it for that reason.

The crux of Battaglia’s CEPA claim was a single oral comment from Battaglia to his boss that, arguably at most mentioned “liquid lunches” and the abuse of a company credit card. The court found this conduct was too vague and it noted there was no evidence that Battaglia suggested or believed the conduct was fraudulent.

Moreover, the Court reiterated that trivial complaints about employees taking too long at lunch or drinking during that time would not rise to the level of CEPA-protected conduct.

Battaliga clarifies that broad allegations simply are not enough to pass muster under CEPA and that specific articulated complaints are necessary for a viable CEPA claims.  Although the “reasonable belief” standard for CEPA remains a subjective one, Battaligia establishes that vague allegations about minor policy allegations are not enough under CEPA.