NJ Court Expands Definition of Discrimination

The Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court recently expanded the scope of employees protected from employment discrimination. The Court ruled that anti-discrimination protection extends to employees who are perceived to be, but aren’t, members of a protected class. For example, if your employer thinks you are Jewish, but you aren’t, you are still protected from anti-Semitism at work.

The case was brought by Myron Cowher, a truck driver for Carson & Roberts Site Construction & Engineering. Mr. Cowher claims that his supervisors subjected him to anti-Semitic remarks on a daily basis. While Mr. Cowher is not Jewish, either by ethnicity or by faith, he felt that these remarks caused a hostile work environment.

The primary issue analyzed by the Appellate Division was whether an individual may bring a suit against an employer for discrimination based on a perceived membership in a protected class. The Court noted that, in the area of disability discrimination, an employee is protected if her employer believes she is disabled, even when she is not. This is the concept of “perceived disability discrimination.” Other states and the federal courts have recognized this concept as well. The Appellate Division reasoned that there is no basis to grant protection to individuals who are perceived to be disabled, but not to employees who are perceived to be members of other protected categories.

The purpose of anti-discrimination law is to eradicate discrimination, wherever it lurks. Whether you are actually a member of a protected group or whether your employer just thinks you are — you still have the right to work in an environment free of discrimination. The Court’s expansion of the definition of discrimination makes perfect sense.