[Updated at the end for the Supreme Court decision]

An interesting case was heard by the New Jersey Supreme Court last week on whether an impending divorce can be a cause for employment termination.  Plaintiff Robert Smith worked for the Millville Rescue Squad (MRS) for 17 years, 8 years as a volunteer and over ten years as a paid employee.  He started as a certified emergency medical technician and rose to director of operations a few years before he was terminated.

His wife was also a long-term employee of MRS.  In fact, they met there.  Although she was one of four field supervisors, she did not report to the plaintiff (they both reported to co-defendant John Redden).  On January 1, 2006, plaintiff and his wife separated after 8 years of marriage due to an affair plaintiff was having with a subordinate who later quit.  The next day, he informed Redden who told him to keep him apprised.

On February 26, 2006, plaintiff claims he was called into his Redden’s office and told he was being terminated because he and his wife were going to go through an ugly divorce.  From the appellate decision:

Plaintiff testified that he understood Redden to state that “if there was any chance of reconciling, even the slightest, he would have held off going to the board and discussing my situation” where “situation” meant “marital problems, . . . [and] extramarital affair.” Redden gave plaintiff the option to resign. But, Redden informed plaintiff that the Board has decided to terminate him, and the decision was final. After plaintiff told Redden the next day that he would not resign, Redden terminated him.

On February 6, 2008, Smith filed suit in Cumberland County Superior Court claiming violations of the NJ Law Against Discrimination (sex and marital status discrimination) as well as a constitutional claim and common law wrongful discharge Pierce claim. The latter two counts were dismissed early in the case by motion.  Defendants claim the plaintiff was terminated for poor performance, restructuring of the organization and rules violations (i.e. using his personal phone on company time).  The sex and marital status claims were dismissed by the trial court after plaintiff presented his case at trial.  Plaintiff appealed.

The appellate court affirmed the sex discrimination dismissal but overturned the marital status discrimination dismissal.  Now the case is at the NJ Supreme Court.  They will have to determine in large part whether someone can be terminated for anticipated poor job performance.

The termination of the plaintiff occurred nearly 10 years ago.  If the Supreme Court affirms the appellate decision, this will be remanded to the trial court for a new trial.  In other words, this case will not be resolved for well over 10 years after the initial base incident and well over 8 years after filing the case.  Speedy justice?

This case was probably mediated before trial under the court’s presumptive mediation program.  If this case is remanded, hopefully they will try to mediate again.  This case is already very expensive and under the Law Against Discrimination, the plaintiff can collect attorneys fees.  The risks get very high with fee shifting.

Update on the Supreme Court holding:

The protection that the LAD affords against discrimination based on marital status is not limited to the state of being single or married. The LAD also prohibits discrimination against a prospective or current employee based on their status as separated, in the process of divorce, or divorced. The evidence that plaintiff presented at trial suggests that defendant s animus toward divorcing persons, based on stereotypical views, affected the decision to terminate plaintiff s employment, and therefore created an inference of discrimination due to defendant s marital status. The trial court erred in finding that plaintiff failed to establish a prima facie case of marital-status discrimination in employment under the LAD.

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