Court Rules That A Volunteer Firefighter Is Not Protected By CEPA

Court Rules That A Volunteer Firefighter Is Not Protected By CEPA

In Sauter v. Colts Neck Volunteer Fire Company No. 2, the New Jersey Appellate Division ruled that true “volunteers” are not protected by the Conscientious Employee Protection Act (“CEPA”).

In that case, Mr. Sauter was a member of the Colts Neck Fire Company Number 2 for over twenty years. During that time, he accrued nearly $6,000 in benefits through a “length of service” program and was eligible for deferred compensation, workers’ compensation, and other nominal financial benefits (such as reduced municipal permit fees) as a result of his status with the Fire Company. However, he was not paid “wages” for his services.

In 2011, Plaintiff wrote a letter to the Fire Company’s insurance carrier, claiming that the Fire Company was making a fraudulent claim. Plaintiff also complained about other members using the Fire Company’s dumpster for their personal benefit. Shortly afterwards, the membership voted to terminate Plaintiff’s employment for his allegedly “frivolous” complaints.

Plaintiff filed a lawsuit under CEPA, claiming the termination of his membership was in retaliation for his whistleblowing activities. The trial court dismissed his claim, holding that Mr. Sauter was not an “employee” within the definition of CEPA. The Appellate Division agreed, and further explained that a volunteer firefighter, such as Mr. Sauter, was outside of the class of persons that CEPA was designed to protect. According to the court, because Mr. Sauter was not paid for his services, his whistleblowing activities did not pose a threat to his livelihood. Therefore, the policy underpinnings for CEPA was inapplicable. Accordingly, the court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of Mr. Sauter’s lawsuit.

Both the classification of an individual as a “volunteer” and the decision to terminate an individual’s role in your organization are decisions that carry significant legal consequences. If you are seeking assistance in this or any other employment matter, please contact one of our Labor and Employment attorneys: Tom Ryan, Esq. (tryan@lcrlaw.com); Ursula Leo, Esq. (uleo@lcrlaw.com); Jessica Jansyn, Esq. (jjansyn@lcrlaw.com); or Michael Darbee, Esq. (mdarbee@lcrlaw.com). Our attorneys can also be reached by phone at (973) 729-1880.