What you need to know
Recently the United States Supreme Court held that a third party can sue for retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The Court ruled that the fiancé (and co-worker) of an employee who filed a sex discrimination complaint could bring his own retaliation suit when he was fired three weeks after she brought her claim.
What you need to do
This decision shows that protected activity under Title VII is broader than you might think. Employers should continue to document performance issues to protect themselves against accusations of retaliation or discrimination.
Three weeks after Miriam Regalado filed a sex discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against her employer, North American Stainless, NAS fired her fiancé Eric Thompson. In Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP, the United States Supreme Court held that Thompson’s retaliation claim under Title VII could go forward.
The Court first determined that an action taken against a third party could be considered retaliation. It reasoned that a rational employee might be dissuaded from making or supporting a charge of discrimination if she knew her fiancé would be fired. The Court recognized the difficulty in drawing a line between a fiancé and a friend in determining what types of relationships would dissuade the employee from complaining. However, it refused to identify a fixed class of relationships as to which third-party reprisals are unlawful, noting that the determination is highly fact specific. The only guidance the Court provided was that firing a close family member will almost always meet the standard, while a milder reprisal on a mere acquaintance almost never will.
Second, the Court held that Thompson was entitled to sue under Title VII as a “person aggrieved” by NAS’ action. To define that term, the Court looked to the “zone of interests” Title VII was enacted to protect. Since Title VII was enacted to protect employees from their employers’ unlawful actions, Thompson, as an employee, fell into the relevant “zone of interests.” In practical terms, this aspect of the decision allows all employees (but generally not non-employees) to bring a claim under Title VII if they meet the first retaliation prong above.
In light of Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP, employers should be aware that the retaliation provision of Title VII covers more individuals than one may think. In order to protect against retaliation claims, employers would be well advised to think more broadly, and to consider the relationship an individual may have with anyone who has made a discrimination claim before taking any adverse action. And, as always, documenting performance issues is critically important.