Employers may be on the hook for a new type of retaliation claim. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a controversial case over whether fiancés, friends and other people close to a co-worker who has complained of workplace discrimination are protected from termination or other forms of retaliation.
The case, Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP, was brought by Eric Thompson, a Kentucky man whose fiancée filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging discrimination by her supervisors at North American Stainless on the basis of her sex. Three weeks after the company was notified of his fiancée’s complaint, Thompson's employment was terminated, allegedly for poor performance. Thompson sued, claiming he was fired in retaliation for his fiancée’s complaint.
The trial court dismissed Thompson's case on summary judgment. Thompson appealed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which reversed the trial court’s award of summary judgment and ruled in Thompson’s favor. After a rehearing on the case, however, the Sixth Circuit reversed itself, reinstating the trial court’s original ruling. The Supreme Court granted certiorari and will likely hear the case in early 2011. Employers should watch closely to see how the Supreme Court rules, as a decision in favor of Thompson may expose employers to a whole new class of plaintiffs in retaliation cases.