On Tuesday, after a 6-0 vote, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that men and women who are separated, divorced, or going through a divorce cannot be terminated from their jobs in cases where the change in marital status has no bearing on job performance.
According to the Supreme Court, the state’s Law Against Discrimination protects current or prospective employees from discrimination on the basis of marital status – which the Court argued also includes individuals who are moving on from their current relationship.
“We hold, as did the Appellate Division, that marital status is not limited to the state of being single or married. Rather, the LAD also protects all employees who have declared that they will marry, have separated from a spouse, have initiated divorce proceedings, or have obtained a divorce from discrimination in the workplace,” Judge Mary Catherine Cuff wrote for the court.
Fired Over “Ugly Divorce” Possibility
This decision came after the Supreme Court upheld the judgement of the appellate court in the case of Smith v Millville Rescue Squad et al. Robert Smith, who worked for medical transportation provider Millville Rescue Squad (MRS), was fired from his job as director of operations in February 2006 after telling his supervisor that he was having an affair with a volunteer and his marriage to his wife – who also worked for MRS – was ending. Smith testified that, after he told his supervisor about the divorce, his supervisor said he could not guarantee Smith’s job would not be affected by this and stated he believed an “ugly divorce” would occur.
The supervisor then notified the rescue squad’s board, which chose to fire Smith. While they cited poor performance as the reason for the termination, Smith argued it was because of his divorce that he was forced to leave the workplace after 17 years of being employed there.
Smith stated he was promoted twice over the years, was given annual raises, and never received any formal discipline; therefore, based on his arguments, there was no reason for the termination and discrimination likely played a role in the board’s final decision. He further testified that his divorce, which was finalized in September 2006, was amicable and he continues to have a good relationship with his ex-wife.
“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,” said Cuff. “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.”
Negative Stereotypes about Divorcing Employees
While a judge in trial court initially dismissed the case, stating management fired Smith because they were concerned about the likelihood of an acrimonious divorce – which was not considered marital-status discrimination – the state appellate court dismissed that ruling, stating that Smith was terminated based on negative stereotypes that the management had about divorcing employees. After ruling in favor of the appellate court’s ruling, the Supreme Court argued that “marital status” should also include individuals who are “in transition from one state to another.”
“Marital status is a protected class in employment in New Jersey,” commented Sara Jacobs, an employment law attorney at Cowen and Jacobs, a law firm based in Hackensack, New Jersey. “The New Jersey Supreme Court was correct in deciding in favor of Robert Smith, the plaintiff, in his action for wrongful termination against his employer. Since Mr. Smith’s marital issues and ensuing divorce did not affect his work performance, his case should not have been dismissed by the trial judge,” Jacobs stated.
Smith is currently suing MRS for damages and loss of income.