Going Through Divorce? Laws Against Discrimination May Protect You

Recently, in the decision of Smith v. Millville Rescue Squadthe Supreme Court of New Jersey held that our state’s Law Against Discrimination precludes discrimination and retaliation against an employee based on “marital status.  The meaning of “marital status” includes the status of being single or married, and “employees who have declared that they will marry, have separated from their spouse, have initiated divorce proceedings, or have obtained a divorce”.

The case involved an employee who was terminated from his employment after he told his supervisor that he was having an affair with a co-worker, he was separated from his wife (who was also a co-worker), and was about to commence divorce proceedings.  Notably, the supervisor’s response to learning of such information was that he could not promise it would not have an impact on the employee’s job, and he later indicated his belief that the divorce would be “ugly.”

Written documentation regarding the termination, however, referred only to a corporate restructuring and the employee’s allegedly poor performance.  Notably, the employee testified that during his term of employment he was never subjected to formal discipline, was promoted twice, and received annual raises.

The trial court granted employer’s motion for an involuntary dismissal and, in so doing, found that employee failed to present evidence that he was terminated because of his marital status.  In finding that management properly acted out of concern that the divorce would likely be contentious, the trial judge found that such action did not constitute discrimination pursuant to marital status under the NJ LAD.

The Appellate Division disagreed, finding that “marital status” included being separated and involved in a divorce proceeding.  The Supreme Court agreed.  In so holding, the High Court provided:

The LAD prohibits an employer from imposing conditions of employment that have no relationship to the tasks assigned to and expected of an employee.  It also prohibits an employer from resorting to stereotypes to discipline, block from advancement, or terminate an employee due to a life decision, such as deciding to marry or divorce.  The LAD does not bar an employer from making a legitimate business decision to discipline or terminate an employee whose personal life decisions, such as a marital separation or divorce, have disrupted the workplace or hindered the ability of the employee or others to do their job.  However, an employer may not assume, based on invidious stereotypes, that an employee will be disruptive or ineffective simply because of life decisions such as a marriage or divorce.

The decision makes substantive and practical sense in defining the term “marital status,” which is not defined in the terms of the LAD, itself. Employers may not rely upon any religious exception for this prohibition, but can seek refuge through the prospective redefinition.

OG Post by: Robert Epstein

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