New Jersey Supreme Court Broadly Defines “Marital Status” Discrimination to Afford Employees Greater Protection Under New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination
Paula Lopez, July 29, 2016.
In Smith v. Millville Rescue Squad, the New Jersey Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s dismissal of an employee’s discrimination claim based on marital status, finding that New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD)’s prohibition against workplace discrimination based on marital status extends beyond whether an individual is married or unmarried, and protects employees in all marital phases (e.g., engaged, separated, divorcing, divorced, or widowed).
In Millville Rescue Squad, Robert Smith and his wife Mary Smith both worked for Millville Rescue Squad (MRS). In 2005, Mary learned about her husband’s affair with an MRS volunteer and informed their employer. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Smith also told his supervisor, John Redden, of the affair. During the initial conversation, Mr. Redden told Mr. Smith that he could not promise the affair would not impact his job. The affair continued, and in January 2006 Smith and his wife separated. Mr. Redden asked to be kept apprised of their marital status. When Mr. Redden learned that the couple decided to divorce, he told Mr. Smith that he would need to inform the board of the situation. The following day, Mr. Smith was given the option of resigning or being terminated. Mr. Smith chose not to resign and was then terminated. The minutes of the board meeting held to discuss Smith’s termination reflect discussions about an operational restructuring that would impact Smith’s position and his recent poor work performance.
Robert Smith filed a lawsuit against MRS and Redden asserting claims of discrimination based on his sex and marital status among other claims. During trial, Smith testified about statements made by Redden in response to learning about his separation and divorce and refuted MRS’ claim that he was terminated for poor performance by showing that he received two promotions, annual raises and was never the subject of formal discipline. At the conclusion of Plaintiff’s case in chief, the trial court granted MRS and Redden’s motion to dismiss Smith’s case.
The trial court found that Smith could not prevail on his discrimination claim based on marital status because he did not present any evidence to show that he was terminated because he was either married or unmarried, or because he was having an affair, or that employees of the company had been treated differently because of their marital status. Instead, the court found that the evidence showed that MRS terminated him because of a concern of an “acrimonious divorce,” and such action does not amount to marital status discrimination.
The trial court’s dismissal of Smith’s discrimination claim on the basis of marital status was reversed on appeal by the both the Appellate Division and New Jersey’s Supreme Court, with both courts finding that Smith had presented sufficient evidence to show that he was terminated based on negative stereotypes held by his employer about divorcing employees. While the LAD does not define “marital status,” the court held that the protections afforded by the LAD against discrimination on that basis are not limited to whether individuals are treated differently because they are either married or unmarried, but also extends to those who are in transition from one state to the other.
The New Jersey Supreme Court’s holding in this case establishes the standard to be applied to future claims of discrimination based on one’s marital status. The court supports its broad definition of “marital status” as being consistent with the remedial nature of the LAD and as discouraging employers from taking employment actions based on status and stereotypes, such as one that an unmarried employee is not as committed to his career as a married employee. However, the court did note that despite the broad definition of marital status, employers maintain the right to discipline or discharge employees whose personal lives have a detrimental effect to an employee’s job performance or create an actual disruption in the workplace.
As a result of the court’s decision in Millville, New Jersey employers may see an increase in the filing of claims based on marital status. Therefore, it is important for employers to have a clear understanding of the protections afforded by the LAD in making their employment decisions.