A volunteer firefighter terminated after he made repeated complaints about his colleagues and superiors is not covered by New Jersey’s Conscientious Employee Protection Act, a state appeals court ruled on Wednesday.
The former firefighter, Jeffrey Sauter, cannot invoke CEPA’s protections since he received no actual wages or other remunerations from his longtime squad, the Colts Neck Volunteer Fire Co. No. 2, and cannot be considered to have been an “employee,” the three-judge Appellate Division panel ruled in a published opinion.
“Because plaintiff did not perform services for Colts Neck as a member of the volunteer fire department for wages or other remuneration … he simply cannot qualify as an employee under CEPA,” wrote Appellate Division Judge Allison Accurso for the panel. Judges Carmen Alvarez and Thomas Manahan joined in the ruling.
According to the decision, Sauter was a member of the fire company for 20 years before the company’s other members voted to terminate his membership. Sauter, a full-time employee of the Monmouth County Sheriff’s Office, had joined the fire company in high school.
Volunteer firefighters in Colts Neck are not paid, but can become members of the Volunteer Length of Service Program, or LOSAP, which provides a small amount of compensation—ranging from $400 to $1,150 a year depending on length of service—that members can access after they are no longer members of the company. The township also provides the volunteers with workers’ compensation coverage.
At the time of his termination, Sauter had accumulated $5,871 in LOSAP benefits, the appeals court said.
The judges noted that Sauter had previous run-ins with the fire squad.
“It is fair to say that plaintiff’s relationship with Fire Company No. 2 over his twenty-year term was not always harmonious,” Accurso said.
He filed a CEPA claim against the company in 2004 after his brother, John Sauter, a company supervisor, was denied a contract to renovate the company’s hall. He eventually settled the case for $10,000, but continued to complain that he was improperly denied counsel fees ranging from $7,000 to $8,000, the ruling said.
At around the same time, the company’s treasurer died, and it was discovered that the treasurer had embezzled about $300,000 from the company. The company filed a claim with its fidelity carrier. Sauter challenged the claim as being fraudulent, and also filed a complaint with his superiors that other members of the company were improperly dumping their personal garbage in a company dumpster.
Eventually, other members of the company, including his brother John, voted to terminate his membership, saying he was “abusive,” “angry” and “belligerent.”
After having his membership terminated, Sauter filed his second CEPA claim. Monmouth County Superior Court Judge Katie Gummer dismissed the lawsuit on summary judgment after finding that Sauter was not an “employee” as defined under CEPA. Sauter appealed.
Sauter argued that the LOSAP benefits amounted to remuneration, and added that CEPA should be expanded to include volunteer firefighters such as him.
The appeals court disagreed.
“The LOSAP benefits available to volunteer firefighters in Colts Neck nowhere near approximate the actual monetary value of the services these firefighters provide,” Accurso said. “[H]e does not come within the ambit of the [CEPA] statute.”
Since Sauter continues to be an employee of the sheriff’s office, “there is no threat to his livelihood,” Accurso added.
Neither Sauter’s attorney, Red Bank solo Richard Sciria, nor the defendants’ attorney, Danielle Abouzeid of Dvorak and Associates in New Brunswick, returned a call seeking comment.