New Jersey Verdict Protects Whistleblowers in Suspected Abuse Cases

A three-judge panel recently held that certain whistleblowers are eligible for protection under New Jersey law. This ruling affects the rights of people who report the suspected abuse of vulnerable family members. If you believe a family member is being mistreated, talk to an experienced New Jersey family law attorney. If you suspect that someone is in immediate danger, you should call 911 right away.

An ambulance was dispatched to a New Jersey nursing home in order to transfer an elderly woman to a local hospital. The senior reportedly had a “goose egg lump” on her head, as well as bruising around the ears, down her neck, and on her arms. No one knew where the injuries came from. The woman’s daughter happens to be a doctor who rode along to comfort her mother on the ride. The daughter asked an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) working for the ambulance company if she had ever seen similar injuries originating from this nursing home. The EMT answered “yes.” The EMT allegedly reported the issue to her dispatcher. The daughter also pursued the matter. Thus began an investigation into possible senior abuse at the nursing home.

The nursing home became aware of the allegations stemming from the EMT’s statements. The nursing home contacted the ambulance company to express concern over the matter. Soon thereafter, the EMT was fired by the ambulance company.

The EMT sued the ambulance company, claiming that the EMT’s former employer wrongfully terminated her in violation of New Jersey’s Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA). CEPA forbids a company from firing an employee for reporting suspected abuse. CEPA protects certified health care professionals who report that a patient might be receiving an “improper quality of patient care.”

The ambulance company responded by filing a motion for summary judgment in order to dismiss the case. The ambulance company insisted that the nursing home is a separate company, and it claimed that CEPA does not protect an employee who reports problems that occur outside his or her employer’s company. The ambulance company also said the EMT did not properly report the incident to her supervisor. The EMT said she reported the problem to a dispatcher, but the ambulance company claimed that the dispatcher in question was not a supervisor.

The trial court upheld the ambulance company’s motion for summary judgment and dismissed the case. The EMT appealed her case to the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court. The appellate court addressed both of the main assertions of the ambulance company.

The court said that CEPA protects an employee who reports a reasonable belief that his or her “employer, or another employer, with whom there is a business relationship,” provided an “improper quality of patient care.” Therefore, the EMT was protected by CEPA when she reported suspicious activity at the nursing home.

As for the EMT’s alleged failure to properly report to a supervisor or person with proper authority, the appellate court again disagreed. The court cited the case of Fleming v. Corr. Healthcare Solutions, which found that the term “supervisor” is broadly defined for CEPA purposes. The court also cited Abbamount v. Piscataway Twp. Bd. Of Educ., which stated that a person does not have to meet all the definitional criteria to qualify as a “supervisor.” The court noted that the dispatcher performed a sufficient number of supervisory tasks to qualify under CEPA.

Noting the problems in the ambulance company’s motion for summary judgment, the appellate court overturned the lower court’s decision and sent the case back to the lower court to be heard and decided. This important case demonstrated the broad protection that is provided for health care workers who report suspected abuse of vulnerable family members.

When you suspect that a vulnerable family member is being mistreated or denied his or her rights, you should talk to an experienced New Jersey family law attorney. The attorneys at Goldstein Law Group work hard to resolve complex family matters. Call 732-967-6777, or use the contact link on this page to request a consultation.

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