A New Jersey appeals court has reinstated a whistleblower suit by a detective who said he suffered adverse job consequences after complaining of errors made by colleagues while investigating the deaths of a prominent couple.
A trial judge said Jeffrey Scozzafava failed to demonstrate an adverse employment action after his alleged whistleblowing activity. Among other things, he was reassigned to a job that he felt was less prestigious but which paid the same salary as his previous assignment. But the appeals court said the adverse actions complained of by Scozzafava were sufficient to state a claim for whistleblowing, since the Conscientious Employee Protection Act, as a remedial statute, should be applied broadly.
Scozzafava, then serving as a forensics expert, complained to bosses that another employee threw some bedding from the investigation scene into a dumpster while the department was investigating the 2014 deaths of Cooper Health CEO John Sheridan Jr. and his wife, Joyce Sheridan, in their Montgomery Township, New Jersey, home. John Sheridan was a brother of U.S. District Judge Peter Sheridan, and was once commissioner of the state Department of Transportation. He also was a former co-chair of Riker Danzig Scherer Hyland & Perretti in Morristown, New Jersey, and head of its government affairs practice.
Scozzafava also complained that doorknobs on the Sheridan residence were not properly examined for fingerprints and that blood collection swabs taken from the scene were not properly stored.
The investigation concluded that John Sheridan stabbed his wife to death, then set the couple’s house on fire. But that finding was widely criticized by the couple’s four sons and by their many powerful and influential friends, who said the investigation was substandard. The sons believe their parents were murdered by an intruder who then set the family house on fire. The State Medical Examiner later changed the death certificate’s manner of death from suicide to “undetermined.”
As controversy over alleged mishandling of the investigation into the Sheridans’ deaths mounted, then-Gov. Chris Christie declined to reappoint embattled Somerset County Prosecutor Geoffrey Soriano, instead replacing him with Michael Robertson in 2016.
In his suit, Scozzafava said he was transferred from his forensics job to one in fugitive apprehension. Furthermore, he claimed that, as a result of his whistleblowing, the Dodge Durango SUV assigned to him was taken away and he was instead issued a Chevrolet Impala.
He joined the Somerset County Prosecutor’s Office in 2007 after retiring from a job as forensics instructor with the State Police. He joined with the alleged understanding that he would be able to use his forensic skills acquired from the state police. He was involved in forensic organizations, to which he had devoted thousands of hours, his suit claimed.
Although Scozzafava’s salary remained the same after he was reassigned, his overtime pay dropped significantly, and Superior Court Assignment Judge Yolanda Ciccone erred by refusing to consider loss of overtime pay as an adverse action when she dismissed the case, the appeals court said. The loss of overtime pay, along with Scozzafava’s view of his reassignment as “demeaning,” and his supervisor’s reference to his reassignment as the “penalty box,” provide sufficient basis to pursue a whistleblower case, Judges Thomas Sumners Jr. and Scott Moynihan ruled in Scozzafava v. Somerset County Prosecutor’s Office.
“While we are cognizant that not every employment action that makes an employee unhappy constitutes an actionable adverse action, plaintiff’s transfer, viewed in the light most favorable to him, was objectively demeaning,” the appeals court said. “Although still a detective in the fugitive squad, he is unable to continue to use and develop his expertise in the forensic field—in which he has developed a proven reputation,”
Scozzafava’s lawyer in the case, David Zatuchni of Zatuchni Law in Lambertville, New Jersey, said, “we’re certainly gratified by the ruling,” adding that it was consistent with case law finding that loss of prestige and standing can be an adverse action under CEPA.
The prosecutor’s office was represented by Charles Schalk of Savo, Schalk, Gillespie, O’Grodnick & Fisher in Somerville, New Jersey. He did not return a call about the case. A spokesman for the Somerset County Prosecutor’s Office, Jack Smith, declined to comment.