The United States Supreme Court, in Thompson v North American Stainless, LP, extended the scope of Title VII's anti-retaliation protections by ruling that an employee who was terminated shortly after his fiancée filed a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) was allowed to pursue a Title VII retaliation claim against their common employer.
Eric Thompson and his fiancée Miriam Regalado both worked for North American Stainless (NAS). In 2003, Regaldo filed an EEOC claim alleging sex discrimination. Three weeks after learning of the claim, NAS fired Thompson. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to determine whether Thompson's termination constituted unlawful retaliation for Regaldo's complaint, and whether Thompson had a valid cause of action under Title VII (reported in the 07/14/10 FEB).
The Supreme Court held that if the facts alleged by Thompson are true, NAS's action firing Thompson constituted actionable unlawful retaliation. Title VII prohibits employers from discriminating against employees for engaging in protected conduct, including making complaints of sexual harassment. Title VII's anti-retaliation provision prohibits employer actions that might dissuade a reasonable worker from making or supporting a claim of discrimination. The Supreme Court held that a reasonable worker might be dissuaded from making a sexual harassment claim if she knew her fiancé would be fired. In so ruling, the Supreme Court refused to create a categorical rule that retaliatory actions against third-parties do not violate Title VII. The Court also declined to identify a class of relationships for which third-party retaliation is unlawful, and instead held that the standard must be objective to avoid uncertainties and unfair discrepancies.
The Supreme Court additionally held that Thompson had standing to sue NAS for violating Title VII. Title VII protects employees from their employer's unlawful actions by allowing civil actions by "persons aggrieved" by employer action. In this case, Thompson was not an accidental victim of the retaliation against Regaldo, but rather, the employer injured Regaldo specifically by terminating Thompson. Thompson clearly fit the definition of a person aggrieved, and therefore had standing to sue under Title VII.
In the face of this case, employers should be aware that retaliation now extends beyond just employees who have engaged in protected activity, but also to those employees with close relationships to the complaining employee. Employers should consider reviewing their anti-retaliation policies with this in mind.