Focus on: Marital Status and the Law Against Discrimination

It should come as no surprise to most people that discriminating against a worker on the basis of race, gender, or religion are unlawful in this State.  However some might not realize that the Law Against Discrimination, our State’s anti-discrimination statute, also protects workers from discrimination on the basis of marital status.  Our Supreme Court took an expansive view of the term “marital status” when it decided the case Smith  v. Millville Rescue Squad earlier this month. 

The Plaintiff, Robert Smith, alleged that he had been terminated from his job as Director of Operations shortly after informing his supervisor that he and his wife were separated and planned to divorce.  Smith also was involved in an extra-marital affair with a volunteer worker, and had notified his supervisor of that fact.

Smith’s supervisor commented that he believed that the couple would have an “ugly divorce.”  The supervisor informed the board of the rescue squad about what he had learned, resulting in a meeting among board members at which time the board decided to terminate Smith.  He was terminated the following day.             

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 In reviewing the evidence in this specific case, the Court was satisfied that Smith’s employer had exhibited animus toward divorcing persons and that such animus factored into the decision to terminate Smith’s employment.   Because the legislature had not defined the term “marital status” when it wrote the LAD, the Court was free to fashion the scope of the term, and it did so expansively.  Because the LAD was intended to be remedial legislation designed to eradicate discrimination in the workplace, the term “marital status” was interpreted broadly.  

Unanimously, our Supreme Court held that the protection afforded under the LAD based on marital status is not limited to persons whose status is either single or married.  Instead, the Court interpreted the statute to prohibit discrimination against employees based on any variation of marital status--whether separated, in the process of divorcing, or divorced.  

In explaining its rationale for adopting a liberal interpretation of the term ‘marital status,’ the Court hoped to  “prevent employers from resorting to invidious stereotypes to justify the discharge of employees who never married,  or who are engaged, separated, involved in divorce litigation, or recently widowed.”   The Court’s ruling specifically assured workers that they should not fear that life events involving marital status might trigger a loss of employment or a promised promotion.

Linda Kern is a Randolph resident who is in private practice in Morristown. She is admitted to the New York and New Jersey bars and has litigated in both state and federal courts.

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of or anyone who works for is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer.

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