In December, I wrote about a case where a person was fired presumably because he was getting divorced and having an affair with a co-worker. The plaintiff sued under the NJ Law Against Discrimination (LAD), his case was dismissed by the trial court and reverse on appeal. Today, the NJ Supreme Court weighed in on Robert Smith v. Millville Rescue Squad and John Redden.
The court unanimously ruled that NJ’s LAD protects against discrimination based upon marital status and that marital status did not solely mean “single” or “divorced” and that the LAD protects current or prospective employees from discrimination if they are separated, in the process of divorcing or divorced. The LAD itself does not define marital status, so the court looked to legislative intent. Since the stated goal of the LAD is to root out discrimination, the court interpreted the LAD broadly:
We therefore conclude that marital status should be interpreted to include those who are single or married and those who are in transition from one state to another. This interpretation embraces basic decisions an employee makes during his or her lifetime. A person considering marriage or divorce or confronting the death of a spouse should not fear that a marriage ceremony, a divorce decree, or a funeral would trigger a loss of employment or a promised promotion.
Moreover, the interpretation of marital status that we adopt today does not interfere with an employer’s legitimate business judgment and policies regarding its workforce. An employer is not prevented from disciplining or terminating an employee who is inattentive to his job responsibilities or whose actions disrupt the efficient performance of critical tasks. Rather, our interpretation prevents an employer from resorting to stereotypes in its assessment of a potential employee or an existing employee that bear no relation to the employee’s actual performance in the workplace. Protecting those employees who are single, married, or transitioning between those marital states prevents an employer from engaging in commonplace stereotypes that a single employee is not committed to his
career or that an engaged employee will be distracted by wedding preparations, or that a divorcing employee will be distracted from his job and even disruptive in the workplace, particularly if the estranged spouse or the spouse’s friends and family are employed by the same employer.
The interpretation we adopt today also does not require us to disturb settled precedent harmonizing the LAD and antinepotism policies. Employers are free to adopt anti-nepotism policies, but they may not enforce them unevenly based on marital status or any other protected class. Likewise, if an employer chooses not to have an anti-nepotism policy, and instead freely employs coworkers who are married or related to one another, the employer may not thereafter discriminate against a particular employee whose marriage dissolves. Conflict may be inevitable among spouses and other family
members, but employers may not base their employment decisions on stereotypes about how marital conflict will impact the workplace.