Employers cannot discriminate or terminate workers for going through a divorce or separation, the New Jersey Supreme Court said in a ruling Tuesday.
The decision stemmed from a case in which an employee of the Millville Rescue Squad in Cumberland County said he was fired in 2006 after telling a supervisor he was divorcing his wife - who also worked there - and having an affair with another coworker.
Mario A. Iavicoli, who represented the former employee, Robert Smith, said Tuesday that the ruling was critical for the broader workforce in New Jersey. It is the first time state courts have defined "marital status" to include divorces and separations.
"That's a very, very important decision in the workforce, extremely important, because of the amount of divorces that occur in our society," Iavicoli said.
Smith is now married to the woman with whom he had an affair. Iavicoli said they married between six months and a year after Smith's divorce was finalized, in September 2006.
Smith was the director of operations at the rescue squad, where he had worked for 17 years. His then-wife, Mary, and her mother and two sisters also worked there, according to the suit. They reported to the top person in charge, rather than Smith, who was second in command, Iavicoli said.
Smith had an affair with a volunteer he was supervising in 2005. He and his wife, who found out, both separately alerted their supervisor. The supervisor, according to the suit, said he could not promise that the affair would not affect Smith's employment, and said, "All depends on how it shakes down."
Smith moved out of the home he and his wife shared on New Year's Day 2006, and then told his supervisor the marriage had collapsed.
The supervisor, the suit said, was worried that Smith and his wife would have an "ugly divorce," and notified the rescue squad's board. The board then chose to terminate Smith, though it cited poor performance rather than the separation.
A trial court in Bridgeton initially dismissed Smith's case, but the state appellate court reversed that ruling - saying "marital status" should by definition include divorces and separations - and the case reached the state Supreme Court.
Iavicoli said the Supreme Court's ruling in his opinion does not exclude divorced workers from discipline if they wreak havoc or cause disruption at work. Rather, he said, it means someone cannot be fired simply because they are going through a divorce or separation.
Iavicoli said Smith is now an EMT at a hospital in Gloucester County and still lives in Cumberland County.
The ruling means Smith's suit for damages can now be heard again in Superior Court in Bridgeton. Iavicoli said that if the suit goes to trial again - or a settlement is reached - Smith will seek remuneration for his termination.
Iavicoli said he believed Smith's salary at the rescue squad was in six figures, but he did not have an exact amount.
Steven Gerber, the attorney who represented the rescue squad, did not return a call Tuesday. A call to the squad also was not returned.