When Personal Matters Become Office Problems – The Impact of Marriage and Divorce (and Everything In Between) on the Workplace

Everyone has their own personal life outside of the office.  Some employees may be single, while others may be engaged and planning a wedding, happily married, separated, or in the midst of an amicable or contested divorce.  No two relationships are alike and many do not fit neatly into a “label”.  For those employees not single, married, or divorced, but rather somewhere in between, does the law protect them from discrimination based on their marital status?

Recently, the New Jersey Supreme Court was faced with the issue regarding the scope of “marital status” as a protected class under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.  While the inclusion of marital status as a class protected from discrimination is certainly not new, the boundaries of this class have never been formally defined by the Legislature.  As a result, in Smith v. Millville Rescue Squad, 225 N.J. 373 (2016), the Court faced the issue of whether the prohibition against discrimination because of marital status included persons who were separated and were in the process of divorcing.

In Smith, the plaintiff was terminated following an extramarital affair that led to his divorce from his wife, who was also employed by the same employer.  The plaintiff alleged that he told his supervisor that his marriage was ending, and that his supervisor requested that he be kept informed regarding plaintiff’s marital status.  Subsequently, the plaintiff’s supervisor told plaintiff that since he failed to reconcile with his wife, the supervisor had to address the matter with the defendant employer’s Board of Directors.  The plaintiff alleged that his employer harbored a discriminatory animus towards him because of his divorce and because of the concern that the divorce would be “ugly.”  The plaintiff further alleged that as a result of this alleged concern, his supervisor recommended that the Board of Directors terminate his employment, despite the plaintiff’s contention that the divorce did not disrupt the workplace.

The Court held that marital status, as a protected class, included not only people who were single or married, but also those who were transitioning between these states.  Accordingly, the Law Against Discrimination now clearly affords protection to individuals who have declared that they will marry, have never married, have become widowed, have separated from their spouse, are in the process of divorcing, or those who have obtained a judgment of divorce.

In so holding, the Court explained that the Law Against Discrimination prohibited discrimination based on stereotypes regarding an employee’s personal life decision whether to marry or divorce.  The Court noted “an employer may not assume, based on invidious stereotypes, that an employee will be disruptive or ineffective simply because of life decisions such as a marriage or divorce.”  This expansive interpretation of the Law Against Discrimination is consistent with precedent interpreting the law liberally in order to eradicate workplace discrimination.

In other words, an employee’s decision to marry or not to marry, enter into marriage, or exit one, cannot be used as a discriminatory factor in the course of his or her employment.

However, despite this broad interpretation of marital status as a protected class under the Law Against Discrimination, an employer is not required to tolerate distractions caused by an employee.  The Court specifically noted that its holding does not prohibit an employer from making a legitimate business decision to terminate or discipline an employee if that employee’s personal life decisions, such as separation or divorce, disrupt the workplace or hinder the employee’s ability to do his or her job.  Further, the Court also indicated that its holding did not disturb settled case law which permits employers to implement anti-nepotism policies, as long as these policies are not enforced unevenly based on protected classes.

Hoagland Longo attorneys are available to assist employers in their compliance efforts and to represent employers and employees in matters before state and federal courts and administrative agencies. For more information about the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination or for any other labor and employment matter, please contact me at ngrzeskowiak@hoaglandlongo.com or (732) 545-4717.