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Divorcing Rescue Squad Employee Allowed to Pursue Marital Status Discrimination Claim, New Jersey Supreme Court Says

Wedding ringNew Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination is one of the more robust anti-discrimination laws in the country. New Jersey law says that people shouldn’t suffer harm, on the job and in certain other settings, as a result of “invidious stereotypes” about their race, sex, national origin, ethnicity, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, or marital status. A ruling from last year handed down by the New Jersey Supreme Court sided with an employer because his employer did exactly what the law prohibits – engaged in harmful stereotyping. The employer terminated the employee, who was having an extramarital affair and getting divorced, since it feared the divorce would be “ugly.” That, the high court concluded, should have allowed the employee to pursue a claim of marital status discrimination.

The employee who brought this case was a director of operations of a local emergency services rescue squad. Early in 2006, the director, who was married, told his supervisor that he was having an extramarital affair with one of the squad’s volunteers. The director stated that his wife and he were separated and preparing to begin divorce proceedings.

Shortly after the director made his revelation, the employer terminated him. According to the director, the supervisor expressed his opinion that the director and his wife, who was also an employee of the squad, would go through an “ugly divorce.”

The director sued, alleging, among other things, that his employer had violated the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. Specifically, the director argued that the termination was a result of sex discrimination and marital status discrimination. The trial court granted the employer’s request for an involuntary dismissal of the case. The trial judge ruled that the employer fired the director because “management was concerned about the likelihood of an acrimonious divorce,” and this basis for termination could not amount to an instance of marital status discrimination.

The Appellate Division disagreed and reversed the dismissal. The case then went to the Supreme Court, which, like the Appellate Division, concluded that what the director alleged in this case was an actionable form of marital status discrimination. The court clearly stated that marital status discrimination covers a wide array of situations, including being single, being married, and being “in transition from one of these states to another.” When an employee makes basic personal decisions, like a decision to marry or to divorce, that employee should not have to fear that making this decision will somehow cause him or her to lose stature at work or lose his or her job completely.

That’s exactly what happened here, according to the appellate courts. The employer terminated the director based, in large part, upon the director’s divulging that he was having an affair and planning to get divorced, as well as management’s stereotyping regarding what that divorce action would do to the director’s on-the-job performance and the performance of others, such as his subordinates, his wife, and his wife’s close relatives who also worked for the employer. The employer’s action was not an enforcement of any sort of anti-nepotism rule, which the law does allow employers to institute, but instead it was a result of “invidious stereotypes about divorcing persons.”

What’s more, the stereotyping in which this employer allegedly engaged was ultimately erroneous. The employer acted due to fear of a messy divorce. According to the director’s evidence, his divorce was amicable, and his ex-wife and he maintained a good relationship after they divorced.

There are many forms of employment discrimination that New Jersey law bars. If you think you’ve suffered from improper employment discrimination, talk to the New Jersey gender discrimination attorneys at Phillips & Associates. Our attorneys have many years of experience helping harmed employees seek justice for the discrimination they’ve endured. Contact us online or at (212) 248-7431 today to set up a free and confidential consultation with one of our skilled attorneys.

More blog posts:

Fired New Jersey Catholic School Counselor Allowed to Continue Pursuit of Sexual Orientation Discrimination Case, New Jersey Employment Lawyer Blog, April 6, 2017

NJ Supreme Court: Employers Cannot Force Employees to Accept Shortened Period for Pursuing Discrimination Claims, New Jersey Employment Lawyer Blog, March 8, 2017

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