On January 24, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Thompson v. North American Stainless that an employee allegedly fired in retaliation for a sex discrimination charge filed by his fiancée could sue his employer under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Eric Thompson and his fiancée, Miriam Regalado, both worked for North American Stainless (NAS). In February 2003, the EEOC notified NAS that Regalado had filed a charge of sex discrimination against the company. NAS fired Thompson three weeks later. Thompson then filed his own EEOC charge and later filed suit in U.S. District Court, alleging that NAS fired him to retaliate against Regalado for filing her charge with the EEOC. The District Court dismissed the case, holding that “Title VII does not permit third-party retaliation claims.” Thompson appealed. A three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the District Court, but after rehearing the full court voted by a vote of 10 to 6 to affirm the District Court’s ruling. The majority reasoned that Thompson could not sue for retaliation because he did not engage in any activity protected by Title VII. Thompson then appealed to the Supreme Court.

In an 8-0 decision (Justice Kagan did not participate), the Supreme Court reversed the Sixth Circuit’s ruling. In an opinion by Justice Scalia, the Court observed that Title VII's anti-retaliation provision is broader than the statute’s substantive anti-discrimination provisions. Title VII prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin “with respect to ... compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment” and discriminatory practices that would “deprive any individual of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect his status as an employee.” In contrast, the anti-retaliation provision prohibits an employer from “discriminating against any of his employees” for engaging in protected conduct, without further specifying what acts are prohibited.

Citing the Court’s 2006 ruling in Burlington Northern & S.F. R.Co. v. White, the Court noted that this language prohibits employers from taking any action that “well might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.” Applying this logic to Thompson’s case, the Court found it “obvious that a reasonable worker might be dissuaded from engaging in protected activity if she knew that her fiancée would be fired.”

While the Court acknowledged that its ruling could expose employers to claims any time they fire an employee who has some connection to another employee who complained of discrimination, it provided almost no guidance as to what sorts of relationships could give rise to a third-party reprisal claim. While the Court stated that firing a close family member would “almost always” give rise to a claim, beyond that it was “reluctant to generalize … Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision is simply not reducible to a comprehensive set of clear rules.”

Employers should be cognizant that retaliation charges may now be filed not only by an employee who complains of discrimination, but also by anyone who has some significant relationship with a complaining employee. Last year, more retaliation charges were filed with the EEOC than any other type of charge. With this decision, the courts are opening the door even wider. Consequently, now more than ever, employers are well advised to make sure that they can articulate (and later substantiate in court) legitimate, credible reasons for any adverse employment action.