The United States Supreme Court issued a unanimous opinion today in Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP., 562 U.S. ___ (2011), that confirms the expansive scope of persons protected by Title VII. The Court held that it is unlawful for an employer to intentionally harm one employee in order to retaliate against another employee who engaged in protected activity.

Plaintiff Thompson and his fiancée Regalado were engaged to be married and both worked for North American Stainless (NAS). The EEOC notified NAS that Regalado had filed a charge of sex discrimination. Thompson was fired three weeks later. The issue was whether Thompson could state a claim for retaliation, even though he had not engaged in any protected activity. The Court confirmed that “Title VII’s antiretaliation provision must be construed to cover a broad range of employer conduct.” It “prohibits any employer action that well might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.” The Court found that it was “obvious” that Regalado would have been dissuaded from making her complaint if she knew that Thompson would lose his job as a result.

The employer argued that to permit a third party retaliation claim in this case would lead to a dangerous slippery slope – would firing an employee’s boyfriend count? How about just a friend? Anytime the employer fired a person who happened to have a connection to someone else who had filed an EEOC charge, the employer would have potential liability. The Court responded: “Although we acknowledge the force of this point, we do not think it justifies a categorical rule that third-party reprisals do not violate Title VII. . . . Given the broad statutory test and the variety of workplace contexts in which retaliation may occur, Title VII’s antiretaliation provision is simply not reducible to a comprehensive set of clear rules.” In other words, there is no bright line test for who is protected from retaliation.

After concluding that the antiretaliation provision of Title VII was broad enough to encompass the activity in this case, the Court tackled the question of whether Thompson could sue NAS. Here the Court took a more narrow approach. It declined to follow the Court’s prior view that, to be “an aggrieved person” under Title VII, all that was required was that the person have “minimal Article III standing, which consists of injury in fact caused by the defendant and remediable by the court.” That minimalist approach would lead to “absurd consequences.” For example, if the minimalist approach was applied, a shareholder who could show that his stock value declined because of the company’s unlawful termination of a valuable employee could sue under Title VII. Instead, the test, the Court said, is as follows: “[A] plaintiff may not sue unless he falls within the zone of interests sought to be protected by the statutory provision whose violation forms the legal basis for his complaint.” Thompson, it said, fell within the “zone of interests” protected by Title VII because he was a NAS employee and NAS intended to injure him in order to punish Regalado.

What This Case Means for Employers

Employers probably didn’t need another reminder that the potential claims they face are only limited by the imagination of plaintiffs’ attorneys. Before an employer takes any disciplinary action against anyone, it must ensure that it has legitimate business reasons for doing so and that an improper reason – such as a desire to exact revenge on another employee – hasn’t infected the decision.