Supreme Court Recognizes Retaliation Claim by Terminated Employee whose Fiancé Filed Discrimination Charge

January 28, 2011 By Andrew R. Kaake, Raymond Walther, Jeffrey S. Shoskin

On January 24, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP, that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits some forms of third-party retaliation. Thompson, the Plaintiff in the lawsuit, and his fiancé both worked for North American Stainless. The fiancé filed a charge of sex discrimination with the EEOC. Three weeks after she filed her charge, North American Stainless fired Thompson. Thompson then filed a charge (and eventually a lawsuit in federal district court) of his own, claiming that his firing had been in retaliation for his fiancé's discrimination charge. 

Both the trial court and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati dismissed Thompson's claim because Thompson had not personally engaged in any activity protected by Title VII. Since Thompson had not made the original discrimination charge, the lower courts held that Title VII's anti-retaliation provision did not protect him from retaliation. The Supreme Court in an 8-0 decision reversed and decided that Thompson's claim may proceed.

The High Court analyzed the case under the standard enunciated a few years ago in its Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railroad Co. v. White opinion. In that case, the Court ruled that Title VII's anti-retaliation provision prohibits employer action that "well might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a discrimination charge." The Thompson Court decided that a "reasonable worker obviously might be dissuaded from engaging in protected activity if she knew that her fiancé would be fired." This holding alone is unsurprising. Indeed, North American Stainless did not dispute that Thompson's firing would meet the Burlington standard.

What makes the decision unique is that it extends protection from alleged retaliation to employees who have not engaged in any form of protected activity. The statute permits only "the person claiming to be aggrieved" to bring "a civil action." However, the Supreme Court decided that the phrase "the person claiming to be aggrieved" was not limited only to the person who engaged in the protected activity. Instead, the Court held that the term "aggrieved" in Title VII incorporates a "zone of interests" test, which enables suit by "any plaintiff with an interest arguably sought to be protected by the statutes." The Court concluded that Thompson's interest in keeping his job after his fiancé charged their employer with discrimination falls within the zone of interests protected by Title VII. 

Unfortunately, the Court's opinion in Thompson leaves open the question of what types of relationships are entitled to statutory protection from retaliation. The Court stated, "We expect that firing a close family member will almost always meet the Burlington standard, and inflicting a milder reprisal on a mere acquaintance will almost never do so, but beyond that we are reluctant to generalize." The Court's decision in Thompson is troubling because not only does it greatly expand the scope of Title VII's anti-retaliation provisions, but it leaves employers guessing, often with little or no knowledge of employees' personal or familial relationships, as to which employees may be protected under this new interpretation of the law.

For assistance with issues raised by this decision or with any other employment law matters, please contact Andy Kaake, Raymond Walther, Jeff Shoskin or any other attorney in Frost Brown Todd's Labor and Employment Practice Group. 

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