In a recent opinion, the Supreme Court unani-mously (with Justice Kagan recusing herself and two justices filing a concurring opinion) concluded that Title VII prohibits retaliation against an employee who is closely related to another employee who exercises his or her statutory rights and that such affected em-ployee has standing to sue under the statute. In Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP, the petitioner Eric Thompson, and his fiancée, Miriam Regalado, were both employees of North American Stainless. Regalado filed an EEOC charge against the company alleging sex discrimination. Three weeks later, the company fired Thompson. Thompson then filed his own charge and ultimately a lawsuit under Title VII, claiming that his firing was in retaliation for his fiancée’s exercise of her statutory rights. The District Court granted summary judgment for the company, concluding that Title VII “does not permit third party retaliation claims.” The Sixth Circuit en banc affirmed the District Court’s ruling, finding that because Thompson did not himself engage in any protected activity, he was not within “the class of persons for whom Congress created a retaliation cause of action.”
The Supreme Court reversed the Sixth Circuit in a majority opinion authored by Justice Scalia, finding, with “little difficulty,” that Thompson’s termination violated Title VII. Relying on its holding in Burlington N. & S.F.R. Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53 (2006), that Title VII’s anti-retaliation prohibition covers any employer action that “might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination,” the Court concluded that the firing of one’s fiancé was covered by the provision. The Court stated: “We think it obvious that a reasonable worker might be dissuaded from engaging in protected activity if she knew that her fiancé would be fired.” However, the Court declined to provide specific guidelines regarding which third parties are covered, noting only that a close family member would almost always qualify, while a mere acquaintance was unlikely to be protected. According to the Court, district courts will have to decide this issue based on the particular circumstances of the cases before them.
Having reached the conclusion that the termina-tion constituted prohibited retaliation under Title VII, the Court then addressed what it considered to be the more difficult question: whether Thompson had standing to sue. Title VII provides that an action can be brought by “the person claiming to be aggrieved.” The Court refused to conclude that this provision conferred a right to sue on all those who satisfy Article III standing requirements (i.e., anyone who could claim to have suffered any harm as a result of an employer’s action), noting that this would lead to absurd results—for example, a shareholder could sue a company for firing a valuable employee based on his race if that termination led to a decrease in the value of the company’s stock. Instead, the Court held that the term “aggrieved” in the statute had a narrower meaning in that it enabled suit by any person with an interest arguably protected by Title VII. This test would exclude plaintiffs who are technically injured under Article III but whose interests are unrelated to Title VII’s purposes of prohibiting discrimination and retaliation. In this case, the Court held that Thompson was undeniably “within the zone of interests protected by Title VII” because Thompson, an employee, was fired as a means of harming Regalado, another employee, who had exercised her Title VII rights by filing an EEOC charge.
Thompson continues the Court’s recent expansion of the scope of anti-retaliation provisions in employment laws. While the Court’s opinion focused on the specific language of Title VII in reaching what it described as an “obvious” result, the Court’s willingness to broadly interpret the anti-retaliation prohibition in Title VII suggests that its conclusion is likely to impact other anti-discrimination laws as well.