The New Jersey Supreme Court confirmed a narrow reading of the Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA), finding that claims asserted under that law’s “improper quality of patient care” provision must be premised upon a reasonable belief that the employer violated a law, rule, regulation, declaratory ruling adopted pursuant to law, or a professional code of ethics that governs the employer affecting patient care standards.

In Hitesman v. Bridgeway, Inc., A-73-12 (June 16, 2014), a registered nurse (“RN”) was fired after complaining to management and government agencies, and disclosing redacted records to a television reporter regarding the rate of infectious disease among his employer’s patients. The RN claimed his complaints were supp;orted by the American Nursing Assoiciation Code of Ethics, his employer’s employee handbook, and the employer’s Statement of Resident Rights.

The highest court of New Jersey disagreed, finding that the RN did not identify authority that applies to any activity, policy, or practice of the employer because the authorities relied upon by the plaintiff provided no standard for his employer’s control of infectious disease, did not define acceptable patient care, and did not state a clear mandate of public policy.

Employers should take notice of this, and other limiting decisions of state whistleblower laws, that require that an employee merely “complain” about an issue he finds objectionable. Kelley Drye’s Labor and Employment Group can help differentiate between those cases that are properly based on actionable laws or standards, from baseless and hollow complaints of improper care.