The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in favor of Chasan Leyner & Lamparello, PC (“CL&L”) client North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue (NHRFR), based on an argument presented by Thomas R. Kobin, in an important employment law case involving the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA). Mr. Kobin successfully argued that a public employee who complains to the New Jersey Civil Service Commission after being disciplined must raise allegations of employer retaliation at the same time, based on the same facts. Winters v. North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue, 212 N.J. 67 (2012).
Stephen Winters, a NHRFR Captain, complained that he was demoted to the position of firefighter, suspended and ultimately fired in retaliation for making numerous complaints about the NHRFR. Winters appealed his discipline to the New Jersey Civil Service Commission (Commission) and simultaneously filed a lawsuit in the New Jersey Superior Court claiming that he was retaliated against for his “whistle blowing” activities.
The Commission decided that Winters was properly disciplined for abusing sick leave and disclosing confidential documents and subsequently dismissed his appeal. In the judicial proceedings, the Law Division and the Appellate Division rejected the argument that the Commission’s decision required dismissal of the lawsuit. Undeterred, Mr. Kobin first persuaded the Supreme Court to accept his interlocutory appeal and hear the case before trial, something the Court rarely does, and then argued over the course of two separate days to convince the Court to dismiss the lawsuit. In a decision important for its analysis of the interplay of administrative law and judicial proceedings, the Court held that collateral estoppel – the legal doctrine which prevents a party from relitigating an issue or claim that was previously litigated – barred Winter’s lawsuit and held that: “Findings made as part of the discipline process will have preclusive impact in later employment-discrimination litigation raising allegations of employer retaliation based on the same transactional set of facts.” Id. at 74.