NEWARK, N.J. (Legal Newsline) – A New Jersey appeals court has ruled Heartland Payment Systems Inc. will again face a former employee’s whistleblower claim, overturning a $2 million attorneys’ fee that was previously awarded to the credit and debit card processing services firm.
On Feb. 6, the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division ruled that a jury-waiver provision that plaintiff, Greg Noren, had signed did not specifically include claims subject to peers’ statutorily mandated trials. Therefore, the court found that it was not enforceable by law.
In addition to flipping the lower court’s decision on the $2 million fee award, the appellate court granted Noren a chance to have his case heard before a jury. He appealed the Bergen County Superior Court’s decision to dismiss his claim, under the state’s Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA). Details of his allegations were not specified in the court documents.
From 1998 to June 2005, court documents state Noren worked as a relationship manager at Heartland. In 2002, he signed an agreement with Heartland. That agreement included a jury-waiver provision stating that he agreed to “irrevocably waive any right to trial by jury in any suit, action or proceeding under, in connection with or to enforce this agreement,” according to court records.
A year later, he signed a new contract for a vested relationship manager position that contained jury-waiver and fee-shifting provisions. This agreement, which superseded the 2002 agreement, also labeled him an at-will employee.
Noren’s employment was terminated in 2005. The following year, he filed a lawsuit claiming CEPA and breach of contract claims. The trial court denied Noren a jury trial due to the waiver he had signed, according to court records.
According to the appeal court’s decision, the three-court panel ruled in that Noren deserved a jury trial due to updates to the CEPA law. The appeals court determined that contract law needed to be applied because the jury-waiver that Noren signed in 2002 could not be enforced by law.
The appeals panel compared Noren’s case to similar ones that contained contract language that seemed too vague to enforce. The appeals court cited the 2001 state Supreme Court’s decision in the New Jersey Law Against discrimination claim in Garfinkel v. Morristown Obstetrics & Gynecology Associates PA. The Supreme Court ruled that the former employee's contract language was too vague to constitute a legally enforceable waiver.
As for the overturned attorneys’ fees, the panel said the trial judge erroneously concluded that Noren "failed to set forth a viable claim against the defendant pursuant to CEPA." The appeal judges noted that ceiling is high for fee awards under CEPA claims, and there is a “broad spectrum” in determining whether a claim is viable.
The appellate court ordered that the attorneys’ fees awarded by the trial court judge now be allocated for the fees and costs incurred in defending Noren’s breach-of-contract claim.