Yesterday, the United States Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision in Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP, 2011 U.S. LEXIS 913 (Jan. 24, 2011), holding that an employee fired because his fiancée accused their mutual employer of discrimination may maintain a retaliation claim against the employer under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. ("Title VII").

Title VII prohibits an employer from discriminating against an employee "because he has opposed any practice made an unlawful employment practice" under Title VII or "has made a charge" under Title VII. The statute allows a "person claiming to be aggrieved" to file a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"). If the EEOC declines to take action, the statute permits "the person claiming to be aggrieved ... by the alleged unlawful employment practice" to file a lawsuit against the employer.

The Facts

Defendant North American Stainless, LP ("NAS") employed plaintiff Eric Thompson and his fiancée, Miriam Regalado. In February 2003, the EEOC notified NAS that Regalado had filed a charge of sex discrimination against the company. Three weeks after receiving the notice, NAS fired Thompson.

Thompson filed an EEOC charge of discrimination against NAS and ultimately filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky. Thompson claimed that NAS had violated Title VII by terminating his employment in retaliation for Regalado filing a discrimination charge against the company.

The District Court

The district court granted summary judgment in favor of NAS, dismissing Thompson's lawsuit. In dismissing the lawsuit, the court concluded that Title VII "does not permit third party retaliation claims." Thompson appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

The Sixth Circuit

The Sixth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of Thompson's lawsuit. The Court explained that because Thompson did not personally engage in any activity protected by Title VII - either on behalf of himself or Regalado - he is not subject to the protections of Title VII's anti-retaliation provision.

The Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court granted Thompson's petition for writ of certiorari and reversed.

The Court first considered whether NAS's firing of Thompson constituted unlawful retaliation. In analyzing this issue, the Court compared Title VII's "substantive antidiscrimination provision," which bars discrimination with respect to the terms and conditions of employment, to Title VII's "antiretaliation provision," which bars retaliation generally, without specifying the particular "employer acts that are prohibited." Given this "textual distinction" and the Court's "understanding of the antiretaliation provision's purpose," the Court explained that the anti-retaliation provision is not limited to retaliatory actions that impact the terms and conditions of employment. Instead, the Court explained, "Title VII's antiretaliation provision prohibits any employer action" that may dissuade a "reasonable worker" from supporting or making a charge of discrimination.

The Court then observed that it is "obvious" that "a reasonable worker might be dissuaded from engaging in protected activity if she knew that her fiancée would be fired." NAS contended that "prohibiting reprisals against third parties will lead to difficult line-drawing problems concerning the types of relationships entitled to protection." In particular, NAS argued that this approach would "place the employer at risk any time it fires any employee who happens to have a connection to a different employee who filed a charge with the EEOC."

The Court acknowledged the logic of this argument, but stated that it does not justify a "categorical rule that third-party reprisals do not violate Title VII." With respect to the limits of this approach, the Court stated only that "firing a close family member will almost always" meet this 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 explained that courts will have to evaluate claims on a case-by-case basis. Nonetheless, the Court emphasized that the circumstances must be considered from an objective perspective, not from the subjective perspective of a specific employee. Thus, the Court concluded that if NAS fired Thompson in retaliation for Regalado's filing a charge of discrimination, then NAS violated Title VII.

The Court then addressed the "more difficult question" of "whether Thompson may sue NAS for its alleged violation of Title VII." The Court considered the text of Title VII, which provides that "a civil action may be brought ... by the person claiming to be aggrieved." NAS argued that this phrase "refers only to the employee who engaged in the protected activity." The Court rejected this interpretation as "artificially narrow" and indicated that Congress could have used narrower language if it had intended this meaning.

Instead, the Court adopted an interpretation of "aggrieved" as meaning any person who has an interest that the statute arguably seeks to protect. Applying this test, the Court indicated that Thompson "falls within the zone of interests protected by Title VII." According to the Court, "Thompson was an employee of NAS, and the purpose of Title VII is to protect employees from their employers' unlawful actions." The Court explained that, accepting Thompson's allegations as true, he was "not an accidental victim of the retaliation." Rather, "injuring him was the employer's intended means of harming Regalado" and "[h]urting him was the unlawful act by which the employer punished her." Thus, the Court concluded, Thompson "is a person aggrieved with standing to sue."

The Court reversed the judgment of the Sixth Circuit and remanded the case.

  • Bottom Line

Prudent employers already know to proceed with caution when taking action against an employee who has raised allegations of discrimination. Employers must now also be aware that taking action against someone with a relationship with that employee may create liability. Because the Court declined to define the scope of the types of relationships that may create this special protection for an employee, employers faced with this situation should consult with counsel and, as always, ensure that they can support their adverse employment actions with legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons.

Click here for a link to the Thompson decision.