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Alderiso v. Medical Center of Ocean County

May 09, 2001

DEBORAH G. ALDERISO, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
THE MEDICAL CENTER OF OCEAN COUNTY, INC., A NEW JERSEY CORPORATION, OCEAN HOME CARE, INC., OCEAN HEALTH SYSTEMS, INC., MERIDIAN HEALTHCARE, INC., A NEW JERSEY CORPORATION, CHARLES JARVIS, SHARON WILLIAMS, JAN DELLAPARTE AND MARY KELSA, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Verniero, J.

ON CERTIFICATION TO Appellate Division, Superior Court

Chief Justice Poritz PRESIDING

Argued January 2, 2001

On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

This appeal involves the provision of the Conscientious Employee Protection Act, N.J.S.A. 34:19-1 to -8 (CEPA), that sets forth the limitations period for suits arising out of an employer's alleged retaliatory conduct. The provision states that "[u]pon a violation of any of the provisions of this act, an aggrieved employee or former employee may, within one year, institute a civil action in a court of competent jurisdiction." N.J.S.A. 34:19-5. We must determine whether plaintiff's cause of action accrued on the date that she received notice of her termination or on some later date, such as the date of discharge or the first day of unemployment.

We hold that when the employer's alleged conduct consists of wrongful termination, the employee's cause of action under CEPA accrues on the date of actual discharge. We interpret that date to mean the last day for which the employee is paid a regular salary or wage. It does not include any subsequent date on which severance, health, or other extended benefits are paid. For computation purposes, the first day to be included in the one- year limitations period is the day after the date of discharge. Because this is a case of first impression, we apply our holding prospectively. Thus, plaintiff's suit may proceed, notwithstanding that she filed suit a year and one day after the date of discharge.

I.

For the narrow purposes of this appeal, the facts may be briefly summarized. Plaintiff is a registered nurse. The Medical Center of Ocean County, Inc. (Medical Center) hired plaintiff as a case manager in late 1996. (For convenience, we refer to all defendants as the Medical Center.) On January 14, 1997, the Medical Center informed plaintiff orally that she was being discharged for "poor performance." Plaintiff's supervisor instructed her to return to work the following day to close out her files. Plaintiff did not return to work as requested because, she claims, there was no additional work for her to perform. The Medical Center paid plaintiff her regular salary through and including January 15, 1997.

Following her discharge, plaintiff applied for unemployment compensation. That application was denied on the ground that plaintiff was discharged for misconduct. The appeal tribunal within the New Jersey Department of Labor reversed that denial, concluding that the Medical Center discharged plaintiff because of her disagreements with managers, not because of her alleged misconduct. In its written decision, the tribunal included a finding of fact that the Medical Center employed plaintiff through January 14, 1997, "when she was discharged[.]" In contrast, the Medical Center's personnel records note January 15, 1997, as the date of plaintiff's termination.

Plaintiff filed this action in the Law Division on January 16, 1998, alleging violations of CEPA. Plaintiff also asserts certain common-law claims, but those claims are not relevant to the disposition of this appeal. Plaintiff voluntarily dismissed the CEPA counts, apparently believing that prosecution of those counts would preclude her common-law claims. Plaintiff reasserted her CEPA claims in an amended complaint filed on July 22, 1998. In determining whether the statute of limitations has been satisfied, we consider the date on which plaintiff filed her original complaint, January 16, 1998, to be the operative date of plaintiff's CEPA action. Miller v. Estate of Kahn, 140 N.J. Super. 177, 182 (App. Div. 1976) (observing that, for statute of limitations purposes, when dismissed action is reinstated, it will "revert to the pleadings in the status prevailing at the time of and just before the dismissal").

Plaintiff claims that she was subject to a retaliatory discharge on account of actions concerning five patients to whom plaintiff was assigned as case manager. In respect of the first patient, plaintiff alleges that the Medical Center continued to treat that patient with a catheter, which was no longer medically appropriate, solely to qualify the patient for Medicare. Plaintiff alleges that she was removed as the case manager for that patient when she refused to submit the necessary paperwork to justify continued use of the catheter. In respect of the second patient, plaintiff asserts that she was disciplined when she advocated on that patient's behalf, alleging that the patient had received a poor quality of treatment. Similarly, plaintiff alleges that when a third patient under her care requested a different treatment plan, defendants improperly refused treatment. Concerning a fourth patient, plaintiff alleges that defendants improperly permitted a licensed practical nurse to administer care that was required to be performed by a case manager. Finally, plaintiff alleges that she was improperly reprimanded for spending too much time with the fifth patient.

In addition to those patient-related allegations, plaintiff asserts that the Medical Center violated Medicare regulations by instructing employees to order new supplies rather than use the medical supplies in inventory. Plaintiff also asserts that the Medical Center trained employees to prepare documentation to guarantee Medicare reimbursement without regard to actual patient needs.

The trial court dismissed plaintiff's CEPA claims on statute of limitations grounds. In an unreported opinion, the Appellate Division affirmed, concluding that plaintiff's complaint was untimely because it was filed on January 16, 1998, a year and one day after plaintiff's cause of action accrued. The court determined that plaintiff's claims accrued on January 15, 1997, the date of her discharge, and that the one-year limitations period should be "measured from" January 16, 1997. By that measurement, the panel calculated January 15, 1998, as the one- year filing deadline. The Appellate Division also resolved other questions not pertinent to this appeal. We granted plaintiff's petition for certification, 164 N.J. 189 (2000), which focuses solely on the statute of limitations question.

II.

We have noted in other settings that "[t]he overall objective of CEPA is to protect society by shielding employees who expose illegal or deleterious activities at the workplace." Estate of Roach v. TRW, Inc., 164 N.J. 598, 610 (2000); see also Barratt v. Cushman & Wakefield of N.J., Inc., 144 N.J. 120, 127 (1996) (observing that CEPA is remedial legislation intended "to protect employees who report illegal or unethical work-place activities"). Broadly stated, the Legislature has attempted to accomplish the goals of CEPA by designing a statutory scheme that protects employees who complain about activities that they reasonably believe are in violation of some specific statute or regulation, are fraudulent or criminal, or are incompatible with policies in the public interest. Estate of Roach, supra, 164 N.J. at 610 (citing to N.J.S.A. 34:19-3a and N.J.S.A. 34:19-3c).

Central to this appeal is CEPA's statute of limitations provision, which states in part: "Upon a violation of any of the provisions of this act, an aggrieved employee or former employee may, within one year, institute a civil ...


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