In an 8-0 decision (with Justice Kagan recusing herself), the United States Supreme Court recently held that a man who was fired after his fiancée filed a charge of sexual discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against their common employer may bring a claim of retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP, No. 09-291, 2011 U.S. LEXIS 913 (Jan. 24, 2011), the Court easily reached the conclusion that the firing of Eric Thompson three weeks after his fiancée, Miriam Regalado, filed a charge with the EEOC was unlawful retaliation and violated Title VII. “Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision prohibits any employer action that ‘well might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.’” Id. (citing Burlington N. & S.F.R. Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53, 68 (2006)). In the Court’s opinion, it was obvious that a reasonable worker, such as Regalado, would be dissuaded from engaging in protected activity if she knew that her fiancé would be fired as a result.
In responding to the employer’s concern regarding the potential scope of employees who might be able to claim retaliation any time it fired an employee who happened to have a connection to another employee (such as girlfriends or close friends), the Court declined to identify a fixed class of relationships for which third-party reprisals would be unlawful. The Court did state that it expected that the firing of a close family member will almost always meet the Burlington standard.
Once the Court determined that the firing of Thompson was unlawful retaliation, the Court then addressed the more difficult issue of whether Title VII granted Thompson a cause of action against his employer. Title VII provides that “a civil action may be brought ... by the person claiming to be aggrieved.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(f)(1). Reversing the decisions of both the district court and the court of appeals, the Supreme Court held that Thompson was protected by Title VII and was a “person aggrieved” with standing to sue. To explain the term “person aggrieved,” the Court relied on earlier decisions and discussions about the “zone of interests” test. “A plaintiff may not sue unless he ‘falls within the zone of interests sought to be protected by the statutory provision whose violation forms the legal basis for his complaint.’” The Court found Thompson to be well within the “zone of interests” sought to be protected by Title VII, which prohibits discrimination and discriminatory practices that would deprive any individual of employment opportunities or affect his status as an employee. The Court did not believe Thompson to be an “accidental victim” of the retaliation. Instead, injuring him was the employer’s intended method of harming his fiancée.
As a result of the Thompson decision, the potential group of retaliation plaintiffs has expanded. Employers now must be mindful of the possible relationships or connections between employees before taking an adverse employment action or an action that might dissuade a reasonable employee from making or supporting a charge of discrimination against an employer.