Construing Title VII’s anti-retaliation provisions broadly, the United States Supreme Court has held in a unanimous decision that the statute creates a third-party retaliation cause of action for individuals who themselves engaged in no protected activity whatsoever.
After Eric Thompson’s fiancée filed a sex discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against their employer, North American Stainless, the company terminated Mr. Thompson’s employment. Mr. Thompson subsequently filed his own charge of discrimination claiming he was terminated in retaliation for his fiancée’s charge. Title VII prohibits retaliating against an employee because he or she filed a charge of discrimination and also permits “a person claiming to be aggrieved” to seek relief under the statute.
In an opinion authored by Justice Antonin Scalia, the high court held Mr. Thompson’s claims did in fact fall within the scope of Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision. More specifically, the Court held that Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision prohibits any employer action that might dissuade a reasonable employee from making or supporting a charge of discrimination. The Court observed that a reasonable worker might well be dissuaded from filing a charge if she knew her fiancé would ultimately be fired as a result. The Court declined to adopt the employer’s argument that construing Title VII in such a manner would lead to difficult line-drawing problems concerning the type of relationships entitled to protection. Although the Court acknowledged this argument had merit, it decided this consideration could not justify a categorical rule that third-party reprisals fall outside the scope of Title VII’s protection. According to the Court, given the fact that Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision is worded broadly, “a preference for clear rules cannot justify departing from statutory text.”
The more difficult question, however, was whether Thompson was “a person aggrieved” and therefore entitled to sue North American Stainless. But the Court concluded that to be “a person aggrieved” under Title VII, a plaintiff must fall within the “zone of interests” sought to be protected by Title VII before he or she can sue. Here, the Court observed that Thompson was an employee of North American Stainless, and the purpose of Title VII is to protect employees from their employers’ unlawful actions. Additionally, the Court noted that he was not an accidental victim of the retaliation. Instead, injuring him was the employer’s intended means of harming his fiancée. Accordingly, the Court determined that Mr. Thompson was well within the “zone of interests” sought to be protected by Title VII, and was therefore entitled to sue.
The Court’s decision significantly increases the scope of liability under Title VII and likely continues the trend toward an ever increasing number of retaliation claims.