On January 24, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that the fiancée of an employee who filed a Charge of Discrimination was “within the zone of interests protected by Title VII.” Thompson v. North American Stainless LP Case No. 09-291 (January 24, 2011). The employer, North American Stainless LP, terminated Eric Thompson three weeks after his co-worker fiancée filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). Thompson claimed that his termination was in retaliation for his fiancée’s protected activity of filing her EEOC Charge.

The Supreme Court stated that if the employer terminated Thompson because his fiancée filed a Charge, then his termination violated Title VII. In making this ruling, the Court relied on its prior retaliation decision in Burlington N. & S. F. R. Co. v. White 548 U.S. 53 (2006). Burlington found that Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision provides broad protection against employer conduct that could discourage an employee from engaging in protected activity. Finding the purpose of Title VII was to protect employees from employers’ unlawful actions, the Court stated that retaliation claims would be available to any employee within the “zone of interests” sought to be protected by Title VII. In other words, the retaliation claimant’s interests cannot be merely marginally related to or inconsistent with the purposes of the statute.

The employer argued that applying the Burlington standard to adverse actions against third-parties creates an unfair risk for employers, who now would be required to examine the relationship each employee has with others. The Court said that this concern alone was insufficient to require a holding that adverse action against a third-party does not violate Title VII. The Court provided guidance that the “firing a close family member will almost always meet the Burlington standard, and inflicting a milder reprisal on a mere acquaintance will almost never do so.” Yet, the Court declined to set rules related to any other types of relationships because “the significance of any given act of retaliation will often depend upon the particular circumstances.”

Ultimately, the Court explained that fiancée claimant Thompson fell within the zone of interests protected by Title VII. Title VII’s intent is to protect employees from their employers’ unlawful actions. Accepting the facts as alleged, the Supreme Court stated that the injury to Thompson was not accidental and the employer’s intent was to harm Thompson’s fiancée by harming Thompson. The case was remanded for further proceedings.

Lessons for Employers

Employers must remember this decision when they intend to take adverse action against any employee who is a relative or friend of another employee who has engaged in protected activity. Employers must ensure that the disciplinary decision is based on a lawful reason and that the employee is being treated the same as other similarly-situated employees. In addition to all other facts, employers must consider the extent to which the employee to be disciplined/fired is related to, friends with or otherwise aligned with a co-worker who engaged in protected activity. If so, this case emphasizes the need for particular, clear and well-documented reasons for the contemplated adverse action.