Last week, the United States Supreme Court held that a third party can assert a retaliation claim under Title VII, further expanding the statute’s scope. In Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP, the Court held that if a coworker of an employee who filed an EEOC charge is terminated, and the two employees have a close relationship, the coworker can assert a third-party retaliation claim under Title VII. However, the Court declined to set out clear rules about how close the relationship needs to be between the co-workers before a third-party claim is allowed. Without clear guidance from the Court regarding when a third-party claim is appropriate, this decision is likely to lead to a substantial increase in retaliation claims.
The plaintiff in the case, Eric Thompson, was engaged to one of his coworkers at North American Stainless, LP (“NAS”). Thompson’s fiancé filed an EEOC charge against NAS for sex discrimination. Thompson did not, himself, report any alleged discrimination against his fiancé or engage in any other protected activity. After his fiancé filed her discrimination charge, NAS fired Thompson. Thompson claimed that NAS fired him as an act of retaliation against his fiancé.
The district court and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals both held that Title VII does not permit third party retaliation claims. The Supreme Court disagreed.
In an opinion authored by Justice Scalia, the Court held that Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision “must be construed to cover a broad range of employer conduct.” Relying on its 2006 opinion in Burlington N. & S.F. R.Co. v. White, the Court held that Title VII prohibits an employer from taking any action that “well might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.” The Court reasoned that in this case, a reasonable worker would be dissuaded from filing a discrimination charge if she knew her fiancé would be fired.
The Court recognized that its opinion would likely lead to “difficult line-drawing problems” in determining when the relationship between co-workers is close enough to warrant a third party retaliation claim. However, the Court “decline[d] to identify a fixed class of relationships” that would qualify. Instead, the Court stated that “firing a close family member will almost always” give rise to a third-party retaliation claim, while “inflicting a milder reprisal on a mere acquaintance will almost never do so.” Inside those two extremes, the Court stated that “the significance of any given act of retaliation will often depend upon the particular circumstances.”
The Court’s opinion opens employers up to retaliation claims brought by co-workers who allege a variety of close relationships. Friends, partners, spouses, those who are dating, mentors and mentees, and other co-workers may allege that their relationship to an employee who filed a discrimination claim is close enough to warrant a third-party claim. Many times, employers may be unaware of the personal relationships that exist among its employees when it is making personnel decisions.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Thompson will require this new class of claims to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. This will inevitably lead to extensive discovery and litigation over how close the third party plaintiff’s relationship was to the employee who engaged in protected activity, whether the employer knew of the relationship, and whether the employer took an employment action against the third party in order to retaliate against the co-worker.