Divorcing Employee Protected by Anti-Discrimination Law

In a recent unpublished Appellate Division decision, Smith v. Millville Rescue Squad, A-1717-12T3 (unpublished) (N.J.App.Div. June 27, 2014), the Court held that an employee who is going through a divorce is protected by anti-discrimination law.

Mr. Smith and his wife worked together for the Millville Rescue Squad. The couple separated after the wife learned that Mr. Smith had been having an extra-marital affair. Mr. Smith discussed his marital relationship with his supervisor, who said he “can’t promise this won’t affect [Mr. Smith’s] job. The squad terminated Mr. Smith six weeks later, citing the “ugly divorce.” Mr. Smith then filed his lawsuit alleging that his employer fired him because of his marital status. His case was dismissed at trial, in part because the trial court concluded that employers have the right to fire employees if they are concerned about the likelihood of an ugly or messy divorce.

The Appellate Division reversed this decision, saying that the trial court’s ruling was based on stereotypes about divorcing spouses, including the assumption that they “are antagonistic, uncooperative with each other, and incapable of being civil or professional in each other’s company in the workplace.” Mr. Smith had not acted uncivilly or unprofessionally towards his
ex-spouse, so such assumptions about him were wrong.

This case illustrates how working with one’s spouse or paramour can be quite a complicated affair (no pun intended). Employers need to have clear policies regarding romantic relationships in the workplace and take care not to take sides when these relationships go wrong.