Divorcing Employees Protected from Discrimination, Says Appeals Court In New Jersey

The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD) outlaws workplace discrimination on basis of many things, including “marital status.”  On Friday, the New Jersey Appellate Division ruled that a male employee married to a female coworker who then was separated and in the processing of her could not be fired because his boss was worried about the impact of an “ugly divorce” on the office.  The court found that the defendant “terminated plaintiff because of stereotypes about divorcing persons – among other things, they are antagonistic, uncooperative with each other, and incapable of being civil or professional in each other’s company in the workplace….[Defendant] responded not to any actual proved conduct.”  This ruling breaks new ground because it considered a case where the employee was “in the process” of being divorced yet he was still married.  As a result, this ruling also protects people from being fired because they are separated from their spouses and contemplating divorce.  The case is Smith v. Millville Rescue Squad, (N.J. App.Div., June 27, 2014).

Robert Smith took his case to trial by alleging marital status discrimination as well as discrimination due to his sex (because his wife remained employed).  He testified that he received good reviews and pay raises through his 17-year employment with the Millville Rescue Squad.  During that time, the number of employees under his supervision grew from about 10 to over 100.  One of his former subordinates testified at trial that Smith was a diligent supervisor.  Smith offered this testimony because the Millville Rescue Squad claimed that it fired Smith for poor performance.  The trial judge dismissed Smith’s claims after he rested his case at trial because Smith showed only that he was fired based on his “conduct or expected conduct as opposed to his status” as a divorcing male.

The appeals court reinstated his marital status discrimination claim but affirmed the dismissal of his sex discrimination claim because a man took over his job after his firing.  His case will now be sent back for a retrial on his marital status discrimination claim.