In December 2015 I blogged about the New Jersey Supreme Court hearing a case dealing with divorces in the workplace environment. Similar to the matter the Supreme Court heard, there are several couples who are married and work together. The issue in front of the court in a more recent case was whether a town’s rescue squad violated the state’s Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”) when it allegedly fired one of its employees because he was about to get a divorce from another employee.
The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that employers cannot retaliate against their workers because they are separated or contemplating divorce, even if the breakup turns ugly.
A quick recap of the case is as follows – The case involved a 17-year veteran of the rescue squad, Smith, who alleged in a complaint that he was fired after he informed his superior, Redden, that he was separated and there was no chance of reconciliation with his wife. Smith alleged he was told he was fired because the divorce would be ‘ugly.’
The squad’s board of directors approved his termination and said it was because of poor work performance.
Smith’s complaint was dismissed by the trial court for failure to present a prima facia case of discrimination. The Judge stated Smith was fired because of his conduct or expected conduct, and that it did not rise to the level of a marital status discrimination claim.
However, the Appellate Division reinstated the complaint citing the LAD (Law Against Discrimination) preclusion of bias based on marital status. The New Jersey Supreme Court agreed to hear the squad’s appeal.
The court interpreted ‘marital status’ to encompass the state of being divorced and that divorce unquestionably affects marital status.
The Judge stated that it would significantly undermine the marital status protection if an employer could freely discriminate against persons who choose to divorce.
The court stated that the LAD precludes retaliation based on a worker’s marital status. The court stated that the LAD protects all employees who have declared that they will marry, have separated from their spouse, have initiated divorce proceedings or have obtained a divorce from discrimination in the workplace.
The court stated that the LAD prohibits an employer from imposing conditions of employment that have no relationship to the task assigned to and expected of an employee. The court also stated that the LAD prohibits an employer from resorting to stereotypes to discipline, block for advancement, or terminate an employee due to a life decision, such as deciding to marry or divorce.
The Judge stated that the rescue squad terminated Smith 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 others company in the workplace.
The LAD prohibits an employer from discriminating against prospective or current employees because they are single, married, or transitioning from one state to another. Your employer should not be entitled to control how you live your life. The Supreme Court of New Jersey ensured employees that their respective employers could not terminate them based solely on their marital decisions. Schedule a consultation with the attorneys at Gale & Laughlin to discuss any matrimonial or divorce questions you may have.