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Employee Theft May Pay - The New Jersey Supreme Court OK's Use of Confidential Information in a Discrimination Suit

A NJ Supreme Court decision from last December is still a source of dispute in the employment law community. That's because the case dealt with the question of whether it's OK to steal confidential documents from an employer. Shockingly, the majority of the New Jersey Supreme Court answered that question by saying - "sometimes."

Joyce Quinlan was Executive Director of Human Resources at Curtiss-Wright. But when a man who was less qualified and had less experience than her was promoted to a position above her, Quinlan brought a New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD) suit against Curtiss-Wright. To aid in the prosecution of her claim against Curtiss-Wright, she collected 1,800 pages of confidential documents to which she had access and shared them with her attorney. These documents included employee salary and social security number information.

The New Jersey Supreme Court decided that it was OK for Quinlan to take these documents from Curtiss-Wright. A majority of the Court considered many points in balancing the concerns of eliminating discrimination in the workplace against the concern of employers in protecting confidential documents.

Ultimately - in this case - the "public policy interests" of eliminating discrimination in the workplace, the ease with which Quinlan was able to access the documents, and other considerations like the nature and content of the documents taken, went in Quinlan's favor.

Although this decision does not give complete freedom to employees to steal whatever they want from their employers, it's a clear warning to employers to take measures to secure their property on a regular basis (daily or weekly, if necessary). That may mean checking e-mails, as well. Because any employee is a potential lawsuit - with merit or not - every employer should be thinking about preventing problems before they start - or get worse.

Confidential questions can be addressed to Michael Farhi at mfarhi@nklaw.com. Otherwise, we welcome your comments.

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