In March 2010, we reported on a decision by the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey that allowed an employee’s retaliation claim to proceed to trial under the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act (“CEPA”) on the ground that he was engaged in protected whistle blowing activity – voicing concerns regarding his employer’s handling of data security. A California Appellate Court recently adopted a similar line of reasoning. 

Rather than addressing an employee’s concerns, a company fired the employee for questioning whether the company’s networks and information systems adequately protected HIPAA patient information contained on those systems. Cutler v. Dike, 2010 WL 3341663 (Cal. Ct. App. Aug 26, 2010) (unpublished). Based on his employment contract, the employee reasonably believed that his job included acting as the company’s privacy officer. As the court found, the employee also reasonably believed:

the database used to test the company’s . . . software contained confidential patient information which would be exposed in violation of HIPAA, because [the company president] had told him it was patient information . . . [and that] confidential patient data would be used in the future as the program was implemented.

The employee had refused to participate in configuring the computer system as directed and voiced his objections that doing so would violate HIPAA rules and regulations. In response, the company president recommended that the employee resign or risk being fired “since you have chosen to be very negative about issues in the organization.” The employee sued the employer for wrongful termination and the jury found against the employer. The employer appealed the jury verdict.

The court began by citing the relevant section of the California Labor Code (Section 1102.5), which states:

[a]n employer may not retaliate against an employee for refusing to participate in an activity that would result in a violation of state or federal statute, or a violation or noncompliance with a state or federal rule or regulation.

The court went on to hold, “[T]he protection of confidential patient information is clearly the type of general public interest that supports a cause of action for wrongful termination in violation of public policy.” Accordingly, the court upheld the jury’s finding of liability against the employer for wrongful termination in violation of public policy.

Employers across the country generally are prohibited from retaliating against employees for refusing to participate in activities that are impermissible under state or federal law or regulations. This includes retaliating against employees that raise concerns under the HIPAA privacy and security regulations, or other data security mandates under federal or state laws, such as those in Massachusetts, Connecticut, or New Jersey. Employers may find themselves responding to more of these kinds of concerns from employees as employees are more aware of breaches reported in the media over the past few years and become anxious over their own sensitive personal information in their employer’s possession.

An employer should avoid reacting to an employee’s complaint of weaknesses in its data system by firing or disciplining the employee. Shooting the messenger is not acceptable. The company should investigate the issues which have been raised and, if necessary, address them appropriately. Employers are better served by employees who feel secure enough to come forward with unpleasant news, than by suppressing such reports and enduring embarrassing and costly disclosures later. Of course, vulnerabilities can be minimized by taking the preventive steps required under many state and federal laws to safeguard personal and confidential information.  

Email this postTweet this postLike this postShare this post on LinkedIn
Photo of Joseph J. Lazzarotti Joseph J. Lazzarotti

Joseph J. Lazzarotti is a principal in the Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. He founded and currently co-leads the firm’s Privacy, Data and Cybersecurity practice group, edits the firm’s Privacy Blog, and is a Certified Information Privacy Professional (CIPP)…

Joseph J. Lazzarotti is a principal in the Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. He founded and currently co-leads the firm’s Privacy, Data and Cybersecurity practice group, edits the firm’s Privacy Blog, and is a Certified Information Privacy Professional (CIPP) with the International Association of Privacy Professionals. Trained as an employee benefits lawyer, focused on compliance, Joe also is a member of the firm’s Employee Benefits practice group.

In short, his practice focuses on the matrix of laws governing the privacy, security, and management of data, as well as the impact and regulation of social media. He also counsels companies on compliance, fiduciary, taxation, and administrative matters with respect to employee benefit plans.

Privacy and cybersecurity experience – Joe counsels multinational, national and regional companies in all industries on the broad array of laws, regulations, best practices, and preventive safeguards. The following are examples of areas of focus in his practice:

  • Advising health care providers, business associates, and group health plan sponsors concerning HIPAA/HITECH compliance, including risk assessments, policies and procedures, incident response plan development, vendor assessment and management programs, and training.
  • Coached hundreds of companies through the investigation, remediation, notification, and overall response to data breaches of all kinds – PHI, PII, payment card, etc.
  • Helping organizations address questions about the application, implementation, and overall compliance with European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and, in particular, its implications in the U.S., together with preparing for the California Consumer Privacy Act.
  • Working with organizations to develop and implement video, audio, and data-driven monitoring and surveillance programs. For instance, in the transportation and related industries, Joe has worked with numerous clients on fleet management programs involving the use of telematics, dash-cams, event data recorders (EDR), and related technologies. He also has advised many clients in the use of biometrics including with regard to consent, data security, and retention issues under BIPA and other laws.
  • Assisting clients with growing state data security mandates to safeguard personal information, including steering clients through detailed risk assessments and converting those assessments into practical “best practice” risk management solutions, including written information security programs (WISPs). Related work includes compliance advice concerning FTC Act, Regulation S-P, GLBA, and New York Reg. 500.
  • Advising clients about best practices for electronic communications, including in social media, as well as when communicating under a “bring your own device” (BYOD) or “company owned personally enabled device” (COPE) environment.
  • Conducting various levels of privacy and data security training for executives and employees
  • Supports organizations through mergers, acquisitions, and reorganizations with regard to the handling of employee and customer data, and the safeguarding of that data during the transaction.
  • Representing organizations in matters involving inquiries into privacy and data security compliance before federal and state agencies including the HHS Office of Civil Rights, Federal Trade Commission, and various state Attorneys General.

Benefits counseling experience – Joe’s work in the benefits counseling area covers many areas of employee benefits law. Below are some examples of that work:

  • As part of the Firm’s Health Care Reform Team, he advises employers and plan sponsors regarding the establishment, administration and operation of fully insured and self-funded health and welfare plans to comply with ERISA, IRC, ACA/PPACA, HIPAA, COBRA, ADA, GINA, and other related laws.
  • Guiding clients through the selection of plan service providers, along with negotiating service agreements with vendors to address plan compliance and operations, while leveraging data security experience to ensure plan data is safeguarded.
  • Counsels plan sponsors on day-to-day compliance and administrative issues affecting plans.
  • Assists in the design and drafting of benefit plan documents, including severance and fringe benefit plans.
  • Advises plan sponsors concerning employee benefit plan operation, administration and correcting errors in operation.

Joe speaks and writes regularly on current employee benefits and data privacy and cybersecurity topics and his work has been published in leading business and legal journals and media outlets, such as The Washington Post, Inside Counsel, Bloomberg, The National Law Journal, Financial Times, Business Insurance, HR Magazine and NPR, as well as the ABA Journal, The American Lawyer, Law360, Bender’s Labor and Employment Bulletin, the Australian Privacy Law Bulletin and the Privacy, and Data Security Law Journal.

Joe served as a judicial law clerk for the Honorable Laura Denvir Stith on the Missouri Court of Appeals.