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New Jersey Supreme Court Broadens The Law Against Discrimination

On June 21, 2016, in Smith v. Millville Rescue Squad, 225 N.J. 373 (2016), the New Jersey Supreme Court reiterated the broad, remedial purpose of New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”), and held that the term “marital status” should be broadly interpreted to cover people who are married or single, who are transitioning from one of these statuses to the other, who never got married, or who are separated, engaged, in the process of getting a divorce, or recently widowed. Previously, the LAD itself was silent on this issue.

The trial court had dismissed the New Jersey employment suit filed by plaintiff, Robert Smith, a 17-year employee of the Millville Rescue Squad (“MRS”), where he worked with his wife during the latter 8 years of his employment. Plaintiff and his wife became separated after plaintiff had an affair with a subordinate employee. Soon after, management became aware of the separation and affair, and informed plaintiff that it could not promise him that his job would not be affected.

Several months later, plaintiff met with his supervisor again, and informed him that the chances were slim that he and his wife would reconcile. His supervisor commented that he expected an “ugly divorce” and, absent any chance of reconciliation, he would have to bring the issue to the MRS Board. Once the MRS Board caught wind of plaintiff’s indiscretions, they voted to terminate plaintiff’s employment, noting “operational restructuring,” “very poor” performance, and plaintiff’s supervisor’s belief that there were no options other than termination of plaintiff’s employment.

The trial court’s decision was appealed and subsequently reversed by the Appellate Division, which concluded that the scope of the “marital status” protection under LAD protects persons from discrimination when they are in the process of being divorced. “MRS terminated plaintiff because of stereotypes about divorcing persons—among other things, they are antagonistic, uncooperative with each other, and incapable of being civil or professional in each other's company in the workplace,” the Appellate Division held.

The state's highest court agreed. Judge Cuff stated: “[t]he LAD prohibits an employer from imposing conditions of employment that have no relationship to the task assigned to and expected of an employee. It also prohibits an employer from resorting to stereotypes to discipline, block for advancement, or terminate an employee due to a life decision, such as deciding to marry or divorce.”

An employee can try to prove a LAD violation by either circumstantial or direct evidence of discrimination. If the allegation is predicated on circumstantial evidence, the claimant has the burden to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, the four-factor test enumerated in the 1973 United States Supreme Court case of McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green. The employer can try to rebut the presumption of discrimination by providing proof of a genuine, non-discriminatory basis for firing that employee. If the employer successfully rebuts that presumption, then the burden shifts back to the employee to prove that the employer’s offered reason for termination is really a pretext for discrimination.

Applying the aforementioned standard, the Supreme Court of New Jersey found that plaintiff had indeed established a prima facie case of discrimination based on marital-status. The facts of the case showed that he was fired, in large part, because of his supervisor’s stereotypical belief about divorcing couples, and the assumed impact the divorce would have on plaintiff’s work performance and others in the workplace. Furthermore, the trial court inappropriately utilized the McDonnell-Douglas test to analyze plaintiff’s evidence, because that test is appropriate only when the claim is predicated on circumstantial evidence. Therefore, the Supreme Court of New Jersey affirmed the decision of the Appellate Division.