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Divorce in NJ: Employment Discrimination and Divorce

New Jersey Laws Against Discrimination (LAD) do not limit protection of employees to the mere marital status of being single or married, but also protect employees from discrimination based upon other marital statuses. The June, 2016 Supreme Court of New Jersey decision in Smith v. Millville Rescue Squad took the opportunity presented in the case to identify and implement the legislative intent of the LAD by defining the scope and boundaries of the Act insofar as the term “marital status,” not previously defined in the Act or in case law.

The Court held that “marital status” was inclusive of “employees who have declared that they will marry, have separated from their spouse, have initiated divorce proceedings or have obtained a divorce. Thus, any employee in any of these enumerated statuses, as well as single and married, are afforded protection against discrimination in employment..

The facts reported in the case are as follows: Robert Smith was a certified EMT and paramedic in the employ of Millville Rescue Squad (MRS) for 17 years. He was terminated in February, 2006 from the position of Director of Operations. His superior, CEO of MRS, John Redden, was aco-defendant in the case. Mr. Smith’s wife, mother-in-law and her two sisters were also employed by MRS in various positions.

Mr. Smith had an ongoing affair with a volunteer under his supervision which continued after she left MRS, which he ultimately reported to his supervisor, Redden, also advising that his marriage was broken down and divorce was imminent. Redden’s response: Smith had a specified period of time to reconcile with his wife, or Redden could not guarantee what would happen, mentioning the phrase “ugly divorce” in his statements to Smith.

There was no reconciliation and Redden brought the matter to the Board of MRS, recommending termination of Mr. Smith. The minutes of that meeting note that plaintiff’s work performance was poor for “some time,” that remedial efforts were unsuccessful, and the Board agreed to allow termination.

In fact, here were no negative performance evaluations for Mr. Smith, though there had only been one evaluation rather than the annual evaluations required. Mr. Smith had received two promotions while at MRS, annual raises and nothing at all concerning remedial efforts toward any end at all. After termination, Mr. Smith’s position was filled by his wife and another man, serving as co-Directors of Operation, and MRS created a new position of Chief Operating Officer to supervise the co-Directors. The COO position was filed by a male. Mrs. Smith also had an affair with another employee of MRS.

The trial court dismissed the discrimination claim finding Smith had not proven two of the four elements of discrimination claims, specifically:

1) That he was a member of a protected class under the LAD; and

2) That he was performing his job at a level equal to his employer’s reasonable expectations           prior to his termination.

The Appellate Court found that Smith had, in fact, submitted evidence adequate to entitle him to a hearing, including his showing that he was in a protected class, and that he was performing his job at the necessary level. The Appellate Court discussed a broader scope of the definition of marital status to not be limited to merely “married” or “single.” Millville appealed to the Supreme Court, which is the decision here discussed, broadened the definition of “marital status.”

If you need to discuss marital status in the face of employment discrimination, please call the Law Offices of Peter Van Aulen for a free initial consultation at 201-845-7400.



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