Five years ago, in Quinlan v. Curtiss-Wright, 204 N.J. 239 (2010), the New Jersey Supreme Court adopted a balancing test for trial courts to use to determine if the unauthorized taking of confidential company documents by an employee constituted protected activity in support of the employee’s claim under the Law against Discrimination. Now, the Supreme Court has ruled that the Quinlan decision does not preclude criminal charges from being brought against an employee who steals confidential documents from her employer in support of a whistleblower lawsuit. On June 23, 2015, in a 6-1 ruling, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided State v. Saavedra, and upheld the denial of defendant Ivonne Saavedra’s motion to dismiss the indictment against her for official misconduct and theft by unlawful taking of movable property. The high court found that the State presented a prima facie showing to the grand jury with regard to the two charges, that the State did not withhold exculpatory information from the grand jury regarding defendant’s intent to use the stolen documents in her civil lawsuit, and – most importantly for employers – that the indictment does not violate due process standards or public policy by conflicting with Quinlan.
Defendant Saavedra, a former employee of the North Bergen Board of Education (“Board”), filed a lawsuit against the Board alleging that the Board violated “law and public policy” by denying her overtime, improperly administrating employee vacation and leave time, violating “child study regulations,” and creating unsafe conditions in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, the Conscientious Employee Protection Act, and other statutes. During the course of discovery, defendant produced to the Board hundreds of documents consisting of “highly confidential student educational and medical records that were protected by federal and state privacy laws” that she removed from the Board’s office without permission. The Board reported the theft and a grand jury returned the above-noted indictment. Thereafter, the trial court denied defendant’s motion to dismiss the indictment, a decision that was subsequently affirmed by the Appellate Division.