Stereotypes: Fear of ugly divorce was direct evidence of discrimination

Robert Smith claimed he was fired because his supervisor believed Robert's pending divorce would be "ugly" or "messy." The New Jersey Supreme Court says this is direct evidence of a violation of New Jersey's Law Against Discrimination (LAD), which forbids discrimination based on marital status. Robert Smith v. Millville Rescue Squad (New Jersey 06/21/2016). The trial court found that Robert had failed to present evidence that he was terminated because he was either married or unmarried, or because he was having an affair, or any evidence that employees were treated differently based on their marital status. The court found that Robert's proofs showed that he was terminated because management was concerned about the likelihood of an acrimonious divorce, which the court held did not give rise to a marital-status discrimination claim.

The Appellate Division reversed the dismissal of Robert's marital-status discrimination claim, interpreting “marital status” to include the states of being separated and involved in divorce proceedings. That court determined that, based on the comments by Robert's supervisor, Robert presented evidence that he was terminated based on negative stereotypes that the employer held about divorcing employees, and that Robert had established a prima facie case of discrimination.

The New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously held that 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 Robert presented at trial suggests that the employer's animus toward divorcing persons, based on stereotypical views, affected the decision to terminate Robert's employment, and therefore created an inference of discrimination due to Robert's marital status.

It was really all about stereotypes. The New Jersey Supreme Court said:

The LAD prohibits an employer from imposing conditions of employment that have no relationship to the tasks assigned to and expected of an employee. It also prohibits an employer from resorting to stereotypes to discipline, block from advancement, or terminate an employee due to a life decision, such as deciding to marry or divorce. The LAD does not bar an employer from making a legitimate business decision to discipline or terminate an employee whose personal life decisions, such as a marital separation or divorce, have disrupted the workplace or hindered the ability of the employee or others to do their job. However, 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.