In a recent decision, the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court ruled that the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) protects employees who are going through a divorce.
The Facts of the Case
In Smith v. Millville Rescue Squad, Plaintiff Robert Smith alleged that he was terminated from his position as Director of Operations at Millville Rescue Squad (MRS) because management was concerned about the likelihood of an ugly or messy divorce. Smith and his wife, who was also employed by MRS, separated after his affair with another MRS employee came to light. Smith informed his supervisor about the pending divorce and affair and was ultimately discharged from his position. He filed suit alleging that he had been discriminated against based on his marital status in violation of the NJLAD.
The Legal Background
The NJLAD states, in relevant part: "It shall be an unlawful employment practice, or, as the case may be, an unlawful discrimination ... [f]or an employer, because of the ... marital status ... of any individual ... to refuse to hire or employ or to bar or to discharge ... such individual...." The statute does not define “marital status,” and New Jersey courts had not previously defined the term.
The Court’s Decision
The Appellate Division concluded that the scope of the "marital status" protection under LAD protects persons from discrimination when they are in the process of being divorced.
“Consequently, we interpret ‘marital status’ to encompass the state of being divorced. Divorce unquestionably affects marital status. Particularly given modern trends, it would significantly undermine the marital status protection, if an employer could freely discriminate against persons who choose to divorce,” the court held.
As further detailed in the opinion, engaged workers are also entitled to protection. "‘Marital status’ necessarily embraces stages preliminary to marriage — one's engagement to be married. The term also covers stages preliminary to marital dissolution — separation and involvement in divorce proceedings. The apparent purpose of the ban on marital-status-based discrimination is to shield persons from an employer's interference in one of the most personal decisions an individual makes — whether to marry, and to remain married,” the court explained.
This decision highlights that termination decisions must always be made for the right reasons. While employers are still entitled to discipline or terminate workers who commit misconduct while getting divorced, they can be treated adversely simply do the stereotypes that accompany the process.
If you have questions about this case or want to ensure that your business is in compliance, please contact me, Ramon Rivera, or the Scarinci Hollenbeck Labor and Employment attorney with whom you work.