On January 24, 2011, the United States Supreme Court issued its unanimous decision in Thompson v. North American Stainless (562 U.S. ___ (2011)) on the issue of who is protected by the anti-retaliation provisions of Title VII. The Court’s decision significantly expanded the scope of employees who are protected by the statute, and will have a considerable impact on employers dealing with charges and investigations regarding discrimination and harassment.

Relevant Statute: Title VII is a federal statute that prevents discrimination in employment based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. The statute prohibits employers from taking any adverse employment action against an applicant or employee, including failure to hire, demotion, and termination, based on the above-listed factors. The statute also contains an anti-retaliation provision, which prohibits employers from retaliating against individuals who either allege discrimination or harassment, or who participate or assist in investigations regarding discrimination or harassment. In Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway v. White, 548 U.S. 53 (2006), the United States Supreme Court interpreted the anti-retaliation provision to prohibit any actions by an employer that would would dissuade “a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.”

Factual Background and Procedural History: The plaintiff, Eric Thompson, and his fiancée, Miriam Regalado, were both employees of the defendant corporation, North American Stainless (“NAS”). Ms. Regalado filed a gender discrimination claim against NAS, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) notified NAS about that charge. Approximately three weeks after NAS learned of the charge filed by Ms. Regalado, the company fired Mr. Thompson.

Mr. Thompson filed a charge with the EEOC, and after attempts at settling the case with the EEOC proved unsuccessful, he filed a claim under Title VII. Mr. Thompson alleged that NAS fired him in order to retaliate against his fiancée for filing a charge of discrimination. The district court dismissed Mr. Thompson’s claim, stating that Title VII does not allow third parties to sue for retaliation. Mr. Thompson appealed the case to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, who initially reversed the district court’s decision, but later reconsidered its decision. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ultimately concluded that because Mr. Thompson himself had not engaged in protected activity, he could not bring a claim under Title VII.

Supreme Court Opinion: The United States Supreme Court reversed the Sixth Circuit’s opinion and held unanimously that (1) North American Stainless violated Title VII if it fired Mr. Thompson in retaliation for Ms. Regalado’s complaint; and (2) Title VII provides Mr. Thompson with a cause of action against his former employer. The Court first concluded with “little difficulty” that if the facts alleged by Mr. Thompson are true (which it had to assume for the purpose of its decision), then Mr. Thompson’s termination was the type that was supposed to be protected by the anti-retaliation provisions of the statute. Specifically, the Court stated that the anti-retaliation provisions of Title VII have been interpreted more broadly than the anti-discrimination provisions of the statute, and they include any conduct that would dissuade a reasonable employee from reporting discrimination or harassment. The court found it “obvious” that a reasonable employee would be dissuaded from reporting harassment or discrimination if she thought that her fiancé would be fired. The Court declined to define the class of individuals who would be protected under the third-party protections of this decision (i.e., how far the protections of the statute go). The Court did state, however, that a close family member will almost always be protected, while a mere acquaintance will almost never be protected. The remaining class of individuals (in between close family members and mere acquaintances) are left unaddressed.

The Court also addressed the question of whether Mr. Thompson had standing to sue NAS under the statute. Title VII allows “the person claiming to be aggrieved” to bring a claim, and the Court struggled somewhat with the question of whether Mr. Thompson was a “person claiming to be aggrieved.” The Court ultimately ended at a “middle ground” between the interpretation of the term “person claiming to be aggrieved” suggested by NAS and the interpretation suggested by Mr. Thompson. The Court stated that “any plaintiff with an interest arguably sought to be protected” by Title VII may bring suit under the statute. While this would include someone like Mr. Thompson, whose employment was directly affected by his fiancée’s report under the statute, it would not include an individual whose interests are only peripherally affected by the statute (a stockholder of a company that had engaged in discrimination, for example).

What this Case Means for Employers: The fact that the Court decided this case unanimously is significant. It is a further indication that all members of the Court, including the more conservative members (who tend to be pro-business in their decisions), believe that the anti-discrimination provisions of the various federal statutes are important and should be strictly enforced. The Court has issued a handful of decisions over the past few years regarding anti-retaliation provisions that have expanded protections for employees who report discrimination or participate in investigations regarding discrimination. Additionally, the number of retaliation claims filed by individuals has risen over the past few years, and the EEOC has made clear that it will pursue charges of retaliation vigorously.

Employers should always exercise caution when dealing with employees who have filed charges or lawsuits regarding discrimination or harassment, or who have participated in investigations of the same. This decision teaches that the employees who participated in the charges or investigations are not the only ones who are protected, but that their family members, and maybe even friends, who are also employed by the employer may also be protected. The scope of protection for the non-reporting employees has not yet been determined, so employers should avoid any appearance of a retaliatory motive in making employment decisions.

The attorneys in Larkin Hoffman’s Labor & Employment Group have experience in counseling employers regarding retaliation cases and litigating retaliation claims after lawsuits have been filed. We are also able to assist with any other labor or employment questions you may have.