By: Craig Wagenblast, Summer Law Clerk for CLDD&S
Divorce. For some fortunate parting couples, divorce can be an amicable and relatively pain-free process. For others, divorce can be an emotionally, physically, and financially draining process. For some, an impending divorce could even cost one his or her job. That is until the New Jersey Supreme Court recently held that New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination Act (LAD) prohibits employers from discriminating against employees who are getting divorced.
The case, Smith v. Millville Rescue Squad, was decided on June 21, 2016, and involved an employee who argued he was fired because he and his wife, a co-worker, were in the process of getting divorced. The employer speculated that based on the facts of the situation, it would be an “ugly divorce” and could cause a disturbance in the workplace. The employee subsequently brought a marital-status discrimination claim against his former employer, which was dismissed by the trial court. The Appellate Division then sided with the employee and found direct evidence that he was discriminated against based on his marital status. The case ultimately landed in the New Jersey Supreme Court which had to determine the scope of the marital-status discrimination cause of action under the LAD.
The LAD provides that employers cannot discriminate against employees based on marital status, but the statute does not define the term “marital status” or explain what it entails. The New Jersey Supreme Court held that for the purposes of the LAD, “marital status” does not just cover married versus single status, but also applies to those who are “in transition from one state to another.” Therefore, the protections offered by the LAD extend to those who have been or are in the process of getting divorced. The employee will now have the chance to present his case and convince a jury that he was fired because of his change in marital status.
The Court explained that a broad interpretation of marital status is consistent with the remedial nature of the LAD and allows greater protection from the negative effects of discrimination. The Court reassured that this decision does not impede the power of employers to make legitimate business decisions—if a pending divorce does in fact affect an employee’s efficiency and the business of the company, an employer may terminate the employee for the work-related issue. Employers are also still free to implement anti-nepotism policies, as long as they are not unevenly enforced based on marital status or other protected classes. This decision, however, does prevent employers from taking adverse actions against employees based on negative stereotypes associated with people going through divorce.
So even if someone is going through a messy divorce with a co-worker spouse, they may find solace in the fact that as long as they continue to perform well and act civilly, their job should be secure thanks to the LAD and the New Jersey Supreme Court.