In a rare unanimous decision, the United States Supreme Court has ruled that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 covers retaliation claims filed by third-parties who are considered to be "aggrieved persons" because they are "within the zone of interests sought to be protected by Title VII." Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP, No. 09-291, U.S. Supreme Court (January 24, 2011).
Background: Eric Thompson and his fiancé, Miriam Regalado, were employees of North American Stainless, LP. Three weeks after Regalado filed a sex discrimination charge against the employer with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the company fired Thompson. Thompson filed suit against the company alleging his termination was to retaliate against Regalado for filing her Charge. The District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals both found in favor of the employer finding that Thompson was not "in the class of persons for whom Congress created a retaliation cause of action."
Supremes Reverse: The first issue that the Supreme Court had to decide was whether Thompson's firing was unlawful retaliation. They concluded it is "obvious that a reasonable worker might be dissuaded from engaging in protected activity (i.e., filing a Charge of discrimination) if she knew that her fiancé would be fired."
The second issue to be resolved was whether Thompson could sue under Title VII for third-party retaliation. The Court declared, in a decision written by Justice Antonin Scalia, that a plaintiff may sue if he/she "falls within the ‘zone of interests' sought to be protected by the statutory provision whose violation forms the legal basis for his complaint." However, a person may not sue if his/her interests are "marginally related" or "inconsistent" with the purpose intended by Congress.
What this Means to You: While the meaning of the phrase "zone of interest" was not defined, it is obvious that employers will have to be careful in taking any adverse employment actions against employees who have a unique relationship with an employee who has taken protected activity, such as filing a Charge of discrimination, or complaining of illegal workplace harassment.