Appellate Division Extends New Jersey Law Against Discrimination to Divorcing Employees

The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”) has long prohibited discrimination against individuals on the basis of their “marital status,” barring employers from considering an individual’s status as married or unmarried in making any employment decisions.   In the recent case of a New Jersey appeals court recently examined the scope of the marital status protections of LAD and determined that they also extend to engaged, separated and divorced individuals.

The Facts: Robert Smith, Director of Operations for the Millville Rescue Squad (“Millville”), supervised over one hundred employees, including his wife. In February 2005, Smith had an affair with a subordinate who later resigned, and shortly thereafter, Smith and his wife separated.  Mr. Smith’s supervisor became aware of Smith’s affair and subsequent separation and told him he could not promise these developments would not affect Smith’s job, that it “all depends on how it shakes down.”  Several months later, Smith’s employment was terminated for poor work performance. Smith’s supervisor purportedly told Smith that he had to present the situation to Millville’s board of directors because he believed there was no chance of reconciliation between Smith and his wife and “it’s going to be an ugly divorce.”  Smith filed suit alleging marital status discrimination in violation of the LAD.

The Ruling: In the proceedings below, the trial court dismissed Smith’s marital discrimination claim because Smith failed to present evidence that Millville fired him because he was either married or unmarried. The Court reasoned that Millville had the right to terminate Smith because it was concerned about the potential impact his divorce proceedings might have on his work. Smith appealed that ruling.

On appeal, the Appellate Division rejected the trial court’s narrow interpretation that “marital status” only encompassed the state of being married or unmarried. Pointing to the broad remedial purpose behind the LAD, the Court interpreted “marital status” to include the state of being divorced, as well as stages preliminary to marriage and preliminary to divorce.  Accordingly, the Court concluded that Millville terminated Smith because of stereotypes about divorcing employees – a marital status protected under the expanded interpretation of the LAD – and the feared impact of an “ugly divorce” in the workplace rather than Smith’s actual conduct.

The Takeaway: As a result of this ruling, employees are now protected from adverse employment actions based on the fact that they are divorced/separated, in the process of a divorce/separation, engaged, married or single.  While employers may take adverse action against employees who demonstrate actual misconduct arising from a divorce or separation, employers cannot do so based solely on stereotypes about how these marital difficulties will impact the workplace.

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