On January 24, 2011, the Supreme Court held unanimously that an employee could bring a claim of retaliation against his former employer under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"), even though the employee did not himself file the charge of discrimination that triggered the alleged retaliation. Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP, U.S. No. 09-291, slip op. (January 24, 2011). The Court also held that, if the facts alleged by the employee were true, the company's termination of the employee because of his close relationship with another employee who had engaged in the protected activity would constitute unlawful retaliation.
Eric Thompson and his fiancée both worked for North American Stainless, LP ("NAS") when Thompson's fiancée filed a charge of sex discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. NAS terminated Thompson three weeks after receiving notice of the charge. Thompson filed suit against NAS in the United Stated District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky under Title VII, alleging that NAS terminated him in retaliation for his fiancée filing her charge. The District Court granted NAS's motion for summary judgment, holding that third parties could not bring retaliation claims under Title VII. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.
The Supreme Court applied the "zone of interests" test to determine whether Thompson was a "person aggrieved" under Title VII and, therefore, had standing to sue. Under the zone of interests test, a plaintiff is entitled to file a lawsuit if he or she has an interest "'arguably [sought] to be protected by the statutes.'" Thompson v. North American Stainless, slip op. at 7 (quoting National Credit Union Admin. v. First Nat. Bank & Trust Co., 522 U.S. 479, 495 (1998)). The Court held that, even though Thompson did not engage in protected activity, as an employee of NAS, he fell within Title VII's zone of interests, which included protecting employees from unlawful actions by their employers. Accepting Thompson's allegations as true, the Court ruled that NAS had unlawfully intended to harm Thompson's fiancée by injuring Thompson, which further supported a finding that Thompson had standing to file suit.
While the Court expressly declined to define the "class of relationships for which third-party reprisals are unlawful," it held that terminating a close family member will "almost always" meet the requisite standard and mild reprisals against acquaintances "will almost never do so." Thompson v. North American Stainless, slip op. at 4.
Given the Court's decision, employers should use careful scrutiny when contemplating adverse employment actions against employees who are related to or have a close relationship with employees who have engaged in protected activities.