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Racanelli v. County of Passaic

November 10, 2010

JAMES RACANELLI, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
COUNTY OF PASSAIC, PASSAIC COUNTY SHERIFF'S DEPARTMENT, JERRY SPEZIALE, A COUNTY EMPLOYEE AND AN INDIVIDUAL, CAPTAIN SERAFINO CAPORUSCIO, A COUNTY EMPLOYEE AND AN INDIVIDUAL, LIEUTENANT NICK MANGO, A COUNTY EMPLOYEE AND AN INDIVIDUAL, WARDEN CHARLES MEYERS, A COUNTY EMPLOYEE AND AN INDIVIDUAL, PATRICK MURRAY, A COUNTY EMPLOYEE AND AN INDIVIDUAL, SERGEANT STEVEN WARNER, A COUNTY EMPLOYEE AND AN INDIVIDUAL, LIEUTENANT DUNLOP, A COUNTY EMPLOYEE AND AN INDIVIDUAL, COUNTY EMPLOYEES AND INDIVIDUALS, AND PUBLIC ENTITIES IN THE COUNTY OF PASSAIC, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS, AND STATE OF NEW JERSEY DEPARTMENT OF PERSONNEL, SUCEL GONZALEZ, A STATE EMPLOYEE AND AN INDIVIDUAL, SCOTT NANCE, A STATE EMPLOYEE AND AN INDIVIDUAL, KEN CONNOLLY, A PUBLIC EMPLOYEE AND AN INDIVIDUAL, DEFENDANTS.



On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Bergen County, Docket No. L-2751-09.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Yannotti, J.A.D.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

APPROVED FOR PUBLICATION

Argued October 5, 2010

Before Judges Skillman*fn1, Yannotti and Espinosa.

On June 16, 2008, plaintiff James Racanelli filed a complaint in the Law Division in which he asserted various claims against the County of Passaic (County), the Passaic County Sheriff's Department (PCSD), Sheriff Jerry Speziale, Captain Serafina Caporuscio, Lieutentant Nick Mango, Warden Charles Meyers, Patrick Murray, Sergeant Steven Warner and Lieutenant Dunlop (collectively, the Passaic County Defendants). Plaintiff also named as defendants the State of New Jersey, the Department of Personnel (DOP) and certain State employees (collectively, the State Defendants).*fn2 Plaintiff appeals from an order entered by the Law Division on May 1, 2009, granting summary judgment to the Passaic County Defendants. For the reasons that follow, we reverse.

In his complaint, plaintiff alleged, among other things, that on May 26, 2006, he reported to Patrick Murray "unlawful and/or inappropriate" actions by certain supervisors and ranking officers in the PCSD, including Sergeant Warner and Lieutenant Dunlop. Plaintiff claimed that on June 1, 2006, as a result of these reports, Sheriff Speziale and certain other Passaic County Defendants engaged in unlawful retaliatory actions. Plaintiff alleged that, in the period from June 2006 through May 2007, Speziale and others participated in a pattern of harassment and assignments based on political and other improper considerations.

In addition, plaintiff alleged that in May 2007, he was "wrongfully and maliciously transferred" to the county jail, despite a lack of training for a position there. Plaintiff claims that as a result of his transfer to the county jail and certain other wrongful actions on the part of the Passaic County Defendants, he was vulnerable to dismissal and ultimately laid off.

In January 2009, the State Defendants filed a motion to dismiss the complaint or transfer the matter to the Appellate Division. On February 4, 2009, the Passaic County Defendants filed a cross motion for summary judgment.

On May 1, 2009, the trial court filed a written opinion on the motions. The court concluded that plaintiff was barred from pursuing his claims in the Law Division because he had not taken a timely appeal from the final decision of the Civil Service Commission (Commission) upholding his layoff. The court also concluded that plaintiff's claims were barred because he had not filed a timely notice of claim pursuant to the Tort Claims Act, N.J.S.A. 59:1-1 to 12-3 (TCA).

The trial court entered orders dated May 1, 2009, memorializing its decision on the motions. This appeal followed. Plaintiff does not challenge the dismissal of his claims against the State Defendants; however, he seeks reversal of the order dismissing his claims against the Passaic County Defendants.

Plaintiff argues that he asserted valid claims against the Passaic County Defendants under the Conscientious Employee Protection Act, N.J.S.A. 34:19-1 to -8 (CEPA). He contends that he may pursue his CEPA claims notwithstanding his failure to appeal the Commission's final decision upholding his layoff. Plaintiff further argues that the notice of claim provisions of the TCA do not apply to his CEPA claims.

The essential purpose of CEPA is to provide "broad protections against employer retaliat[ion] for workers whose whistle-blowing activities benefit the health, safety and welfare of the public." Feldman v. Hunterdon Radiological Assocs., 187 N.J. 228, 239 (2006) (citation and internal quotations omitted). CEPA precludes an employer from taking retaliatory action against an employee because the employee

a. [d]iscloses, or threatens to disclose to a supervisor or to a public body an activity, policy or practice of the employer or another employer with whom there is a business relationship, that the employee reasonably believes is in violation of a law, or a rule or regulation promulgated pursuant to law, or, in the case of an employee who is a licensed or ...


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