Continuing its trend of endorsing a broad construction of anti-retaliation provisions, the United States Supreme Court ruled on January 24 in Thompson v. North Am. Stainless LP that an employee who contended he was terminated because his co-worker fiancée filed a sex discrimination charge could pursue a Title VII retaliation claim.
The lower courts had dismissed the employee’s claim, concluding that Title VII’s antiretaliation provision did not cover an individual who did not directly engage in any conduct covered by Title VII, such as filing a claim for discrimination.
In reversing the lower courts and reinstating the employee’s claim, the Supreme Court made two findings. First, noting prior Supreme Court decisions holding that Title VII’s antiretaliation promises should be broadly construed, the Court had “little difficulty” concluding that the employee’s allegations stated a claim for retaliation. The Supreme Court recognized the possible burden this broad construction may impose an employers and courts faced with trying to determine which third-party relationships are entitled to protection. However, the Court found no basis in the language of Title VII that would justify prohibition of third-party retaliation claims. The Court did stress that courts must nevertheless objectively judge any claimed harm that is alleged to have occurred as a result of such a claim.
Second, the Court found that because the text of Title VII allowed retaliation claims by a person “claiming to be aggrieved,” the employee fell within the “zone of interest” protected by Title VII. Based on the employee’s allegations, the Supreme Court concluded that the employee was not an “accidental victim.” Rather, he was the intended target and means of injuring the fiancée who had filed the sex discrimination claim.
The Thompson decision reinforces the need for employers to properly train their managers and supervisors to avoid any conduct that may be construed as retaliatory. It also shows the importance of documenting the reasons for taking any adverse employment action that may become the subject of a discrimination or retaliation claim.