Discrimination Law Protects Divorcing EMT

Robert Smith is a certified emergency medical technician and paramedic working for the Millville, New Jersey Rescue Squad (MRS). At the time of his termination in February 2006, Smith served as Director of Operations and had held that position since June 1998. Smith’s wife at the time, Mary, was also employed by MRS, as were her mother and two sisters.

In early 2005, Smith commenced an extramarital affair with an MRS volunteer, who was supervised directly by Smith. In June 2005, Mary learned of Smith’s affair and reported it to the Chief Executive Officer of MRS. Shortly thereafter, Smith informed the CEO of the affair. During that conversation, the CEO told Smith that he could not promise that the affair would not affect Smith’s job.

The volunteer left MRS on June 27, 2005, but the affair continued, leading to irreconcilable discord between Smith and Mary. On January 1, 2006, Smith moved out of the marital home. On January 2, 2006, Smith informed the CEO that his marriage to Mary had collapsed. On February 16, 2006, Smith and the CEO met again. The CEO told Smith that he did not think there was any chance of reconciliation between Smith and Mary and that he believed there would be an “ugly divorce.”

The Board of MRS terminated Smith, and he sued, claiming the termination violated New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination. The New Jersey Supreme Court agreed, ruling in Smith’s favor.

The Court began by noting that “the threshold issue before the Court is whether the law’s prohibition against discrimination based on marital status extends to a person who has separated from their spouse and is in the process of obtaining a divorce. Despite the absence of a definition of ‘marital status’ or legislative history demarcating the boundaries of this protection, the stated purpose and goals of the law strongly suggest that we should consider ‘marital status’ as more than the state of being single or married. A broader interpretation is consistent with the remedial purpose of the statute, advances the goal of ‘eradication of the cancer of discrimination’ in the workplace, and prevents employers from resorting to invidious stereotypes to justify termination of the employment of a never-married employee, an engaged employee, a separated employee, an employee involved in divorce litigation, or a recently widowed employee.

“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.

“Finally, the interpretation we adopt today also does not require us to disturb settled precedent harmonizing the law and anti-nepotism 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.”

Smith v. Millville Rescue Squad, 2016 WL 3389950 (N.J. 2016).