Earlier this week, the United States Supreme Court handed employers a defeat of sorts in Thompson v. North American Stainless, L.P. Disagreeing with a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit (which covers Ohio), the Supreme Court held that the anti-retaliation provisions of Title VII allowed a former employee to sue under a “third-party retaliation” theory. The ruling allowed a terminated employee to pursue a lawsuit claiming that he was unlawfully fired in retaliation for his fiancée’s pursuit of a sex discrimination claim against the same employer.

The Facts in Thompson

Until 2003, Eric Thompson and his fiancée, Miriam Regalado, worked for North American Stainless (“NAS”). That year, Regalado filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging that NAS engaged in unlawful sex discrimination. Three weeks after Regalado filed her EEOC charge, NAS fired Thompson.

Thompson pursued his own discrimination action against NAS, alleging that NAS violated Title VII by firing him in retaliation for Regalado’s EEOC charge. NAS won summary judgment in the trial court, which ruled that Title VII did not recognize this species of “third party” retaliation. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, holding that Thompson was not entitled to sue for retaliation. The court of appeals reasoned that Title VII protected from retaliation only the person who has filed a charge of discrimination (i.e., Regalado in this case).

In an 8-0 decision (with newest Justice Elena Kagan recusing herself from the case), the Supreme Court reinstated Thompson’s claim, finding that he had a right to sue for Title VII retaliation.

The Supreme Court Finds That Title VII Reaches Third-Party Retaliation

Title VII prohibits an employer from retaliating against an employee for, among other things, making a charge of discrimination. In a previous case, the Supreme Court had interpreted Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision to prohibit any employer action that would have “dissuaded a reasonable worker from” making or supporting a charge of discrimination. Under this interpretation, the Supreme Court observed it was obvious that Regalado would herself have a retaliation claim based upon NAS firing Thompson, her fiancé.

The Supreme Court also decided that Title VII gave Thompson a right to sue NAS for retaliation. In reaching this conclusion, the Supreme Court honed in on Title VII’s text, which allows a civil action to be brought “by the person claiming to be aggrieved.” Based on this language, the Supreme Court rejected NAS’s position that the person “aggrieved” in a retaliation context was limited only to the person who engaged in the protected activity (e.g., filing a charge of discrimination). Instead, the Supreme Court reasoned that the scope of persons “aggrieved” by an employer’s retaliatory action was not necessarily limited only to the person who engaged in protected activity.

After rejecting NAS’s argument, the Supreme Court found in Thompson’s favor by concluding he was in the “zone of interests” protected by Title VII. Key to this determination was the fact that Thompson was an employee of NAS and Title VII’s primary purpose was to protect employees from unlawful discrimination. And because Thompson alleged that NAS purposely retaliated against him (an allegation that had to be accepted as true at this stage of the case), he was not an “accidental victim” of retaliation. To the contrary, under Thompson’s theory, Thompson was an intended target, placing him well within the “zone of interests” protected by Title VII.  

Implications for Employers

The Supreme Court’s decision in Thompson unequivocally expands the universe of Title VII retaliation plaintiffs beyond simply the employee who engaged in the protected activity. Just how far that universe of plaintiffs will expand will not be known until the courts start to apply the Supreme Court’s ruling to different factual situations. For example, would the result have been the same if Thompson were only Regalado’s boyfriend and not her fiancé? What if he was a relative or simply a close friend? What if he was not a relative or friend, but simply a trusted co-worker?

Despite lingering questions, one thing is clear after Thompson: employers are reminded that they act at their peril if they choose to take action (of any kind) in retaliation for one of its employees engaging in protected activity recognized by Title VII.

The case is Thompson v. North American Stainless, L.P., No. 09-291 (decided January 24, 2011). A full copy of the Court’s opinion can be found here. http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/slipopinions.aspx