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By: Thomas Paschos, Esq.
Thomas Paschos & Associates, PC
Haddonfield, New Jersey

In Smith v. Millville Rescue Squad, 2016 N.J. LEXIS 572 (June 21, 2016), plaintiff, who was employed as director of operations of defendant Millville Rescue Squad, was terminated from his employment shortly after he informed his supervisor that he was engaged in an affair, and that he and his wife, who also worked for the rescue squad, were separated and about to commence divorce proceedings.

Plaintiff testified that, when he informed his supervisor about the affair, the supervisor stated that he could not promise that it would not affect plaintiff's job. The supervisor brought the matter to the rescue squad's board. At the meeting, the board decided to terminate plaintiff's employment. The minutes of the meeting referred to a corporate restructuring, plaintiff's poor performance for some time, and the failure of efforts to remediate plaintiff's performance, as grounds for the termination.

Plaintiff commenced suit against the rescue squad and his supervisor, asserting claims under the LAD for wrongful discrimination on the basis of his marital status.  Plaintiff testified at trial to the statements that his supervisor had made after plaintiff told him about his separation and impending divorce. Plaintiff also testified that he was never subject to formal discipline, and that he was promoted twice and had received annual raises. Plaintiff further testified that he and his wife obtained a divorce several months after they commenced proceedings, the divorce was amicable, and he continues to have a good relationship with his former wife.

At the conclusion of plaintiff's case, the court granted defendant's motion for an involuntary dismissal. The court found that plaintiff had failed to present evidence that he was terminated because he was either married or unmarried, or because he was having an affair, or any evidence that employees were treated differently based on their marital status. The court found that plaintiff's proofs showed that he was terminated because management was concerned about the likelihood of an acrimonious divorce, which the court held did not give rise to a marital-status discrimination claim.

The Appellate Division reversed the dismissal of plaintiff's marital-status discrimination claim. The panel interpreted "marital status" to include the states of being separated and involved in divorce proceedings. The panel determined that, based on the comments by plaintiff's supervisor, plaintiff presented evidence that he was terminated based on negative stereotypes that defendant held about divorcing employees, and that plaintiff had established a prima facie case of discrimination. The Supreme Court granted certification.

The New Jersey Supreme Court concluded that marital status is not limited to the state of being single or married.  Instead, the Court held that the LAD protects from workplace discrimination employees who announce that they have gotten engaged, have separated from their spouse, have begun divorce proceedings, or have gotten divorced.  The Court held that under the LAD, plaintiff had made a prima facie case that he had been discriminated against because of his transition from being married to being single.