The United States Supreme Court issued a unanimous opinion on Monday, January 24, which expanded protection against retaliation afforded employees under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Court held that the antiretaliation protection of Title VII extends not only to employees who directly challenge alleged acts of discrimination in the workplace but also to all other employees within the "zone of interest" sought to be protected by the statute. This vague standard expands potential discrimination claims against employers.
Miriam Regalado and Eric Thompson were employed by North American Stainless (NAS) and were engaged to be married. In 2003, the EEOC notified NAS that Regalado had filed a charge of discrimination against the company. Three weeks later, NAS fired Thompson. Thompson then filed a charge with the EEOC and claimed that NAS had fired him to retaliate against Regalado. After conciliation efforts failed, Thompson sued NAS in federal court. The district court dismissed Thompson's complaint, concluding that Title VII does not permit third party retaliation claims. A three judge panel of the Sixth Circuit reversed the district court, but the Sixth Circuit, sitting en banc, voted 10-to-6 to reinstate the district court's judgment. The appellate court found that Thompson had not engaged in any statutorily protected activity, either on his own behalf or that of Regalado, and therefore was not within the class of persons for whom Congress had created a retaliation cause of action.
The Supreme Court reversed that decision and made two key findings. First, it decided that the firing of Thompson was unlawful if done to retaliate against Regalado. Second, it determined that Title VII was intended to provide a cause of action to employees in Thompson's position. The Court explained that Title VII's antiretaliation provision prohibits an employer from "discriminating against any of his employees" for engaging in protected conduct without specifying the employer acts that are prohibited. It then expanded the reach of the law to mirror its related decisions in recent years by stating that Title VII's antiretaliation provision prohibits any employer action that "well might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination." Because a reasonable worker in Regalado's position might be dissuaded from filing a charge of discrimination if she knew that her fiancé would be fired as a result, such employer action must be deemed unlawful.
The Court refused to identify a fixed class of relationships for which third party retaliation will be deemed unlawful. It asserted that a comprehensive set of clear rules cannot be established to govern such claims and that retaliation claims must be judged objectively, based on the particular circumstances presented.
In recognizing Thompson's right to sue, the Court reasoned that the purpose of Title VII is to protect employees from unlawful, discriminatory acts of the employer. Thompson claimed that his employment was terminated by NAS with the express purpose of retaliating against Regalado for filing her charge of discrimination. On such facts, the Court would find that Thompson is within the "zone of interests" to be protected by Title VII and has standing to sue for damages. The Court recognized, however, that its "zone of interests" test must be applied to deny relief to claimants whose interests are "so marginally related to or inconsistent with the purposes implicit in the statute that it cannot reasonably be assumed that Congress intended to permit the suit."
Employers should recognize this new development in the law to avoid potential retaliation claims as they take disciplinary action in the workplace.