On January 24, 2011, in a unanimous 8-0 decision, the United States Supreme Court held that a plaintiff fired because his spouse filed a sex-discrimination claim against their mutual employer has a cause of action under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Up until 2003, Eric Thompson and his fiancée (now wife) Miriam Regalado, worked for North American Stainless (“NAS”). In February of that year, Regalado filed a sex discrimination claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). Three weeks later NAS fired Thompson. Thompson then filed a claim with the EEOC stating that his firing was in retaliation of his fiancée’s claim against NAS.
The District Court of Kentucky granted summary judgment in favor of NAS holding that Title VII does not permit third party retaliation claims, and the Sixth Circuit affirmed. In granting summary judgment, the District Court held Thompson was not entitled to sue for retaliation because he had not engaged in a protected activity. In other words, it was Regalado, and not Thompson, that had filed the sex discrimination claim with the EEOC. Under Title VII, as construed by the District Court, retaliation claims were only available to those who had actually engaged in a protected activity, such as filing a claim of discrimination with the EEOC, and then suffered retaliation from their employers. Under this standard, Thompson had no standing to sue because it was his fiancée who had filed the discrimination claim. Thompson appealed, and the US Supreme Court granted certiorari.
In overturning the lower courts, Justice Scalia, writing for the Court, explained that Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision must be construed broadly because the retaliation provision in the statute is written broadly. To this end, the Court held that the anti-retaliation provision applies to any employer action that would dissuade a reasonable worker from making a claim of discrimination. The Court found that a reasonable employee might be hesitant to bring a discrimination claim against her employer if she knew her fiancée would be fired.
The Court also explained why Thompson, as opposed to Regalado, should be able to sue for NAS’ violation of Title VII. Again, interpreting the statute more broadly than the lower courts, the Court explained that an aggrieved person, which is a person entitled to sue under the statute, is not just an employee who engages in a protected activity, it is anyone who has an interest the statute arguably seeks to protect. In this case, Thompson was an employee of NAS, and the purpose of Title VII is to protect employees from their employer’s unlawful acts. The Court continued, “Moreover, accepting the facts as alleged, Thompson is not an accidental victim of the retaliation-collateral damage, so to speak, of the employer’s unlawful act. To the contrary, injuring him was the employer’s intended means of harming Regalado. Hurting him was the unlawful act by which the employer punished her. In those circumstances, we think Thompson well within the zone of interests sought to be protected by Title VII. He is a person aggrieved with standing to sue.”
The Court was less clear on which third party relationships Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision would now apply to, stating, “firing a close family member will almost always meet the…standard, and inflicting a milder reprisal on a mere acquaintance will almost never do so, but beyond that we are reluctant to generalize.” Unfortunately, instead of a bright line rule, which would be easier for employer’s to follow, the Court is inviting a case-by-case analysis to account for the various forms of relationships.
Given the Court’s 8-0 decision as well as its unwillingness to limit the class of third party relationships, it seems clear that employers must be cautious in their dealings with any employee who is closely connected to another employee bringing a discrimination claim under Title VII. Before taking any negative action against an employee, employers must be certain to investigate whether any close relationship ties exist between the employee to be disciplined and an employee who has filed a claim under Title VII or otherwise engaged in a protected activity under Title VII. This decision imposes on employers an even greater burden of making sure their disciplinary actions are well grounded and supported by non-retaliatory motives or, practically speaking, cannot be so construed.
Justice Kagan did not participate in the decision.