Many states have laws that protect employees from being discriminated against based on their “marital status.” A recent lawsuit in New Jersey suggests that these laws may extend to employees who are going through a divorce.
In the New Jersey case, the director of operations for a local rescue squad separated from his wife as a result of an affair he had with a co-worker on the squad. This made things extremely awkward in the workplace, because the man’s mother-in-law and two of his sisters-in-law also happened to work for the squad.
About a month later, the man’s boss fired him, noting that he and his wife were “going to go through an ugly divorce.”
The man sued, and claimed he had been discriminated against because of his marital status.
A judge initially threw the lawsuit out of court, saying the man had been fired for his conduct, not just because he was married or unmarried.
But on appeal, a higher court said the man should be allowed to sue. It said that the law about “marital status” was meant to include not just marriage, but also the stages leading up to a marriage – such as engagement – and the stages leading to the break-up of a marriage, such as separation, custody battles and ongoing divorce proceedings.
According to the court, the whole point of a law against discrimination based on marital status is to prevent an employer from interfering in a worker’s highly personal decision as to whether to get married or stay married. And that’s exactly what the boss in this case allegedly did.