On January 24, 2011, the United States Supreme Court unanimously held that an employee who alleged he was fired because his fiancé, also an employee, had filed a sex discrimination charge against their mutual employer three weeks prior to his termination, does have standing to assert a Title VII retaliation claim (see Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP). The Supreme Court reversed the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision which had found that the fiancé was not entitled to sue the employer for retaliation because he had not engaged in any activity protected by the statute.
In reviewing this case, the Supreme Court noted that Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision must be interpreted to cover a broad range of employer conduct. That is, the Supreme Court reiterated that Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision prohibits any employer action that “might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.” In this context, the Court found it “obvious” that a reasonable worker might be dissuaded from engaging in protected activity if she knew that her fiancé would be fired. The Court refused to generalize where the line would be drawn and what type of third-party would have similar standing to bring a retaliation claim. Interestingly, the Court did state that:
. . . firing a close family member will almost always meet [Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision], and inflicting a milder reprisal on a mere acquaintance will almost never do so, but beyond that we are reluctant to generalize. The significance of any given act of retaliation will often depend upon the particular circumstances.
In addition, the Court held that the term “aggrieved” party, in the context of Title VII, incorporates the zone of interest test, which would allow any plaintiff with an interest arguably sought to be protected by the statute “to assert a claim.” As such, the Court concluded that under this test, the terminated fiancé was an aggrieved party, as he was within the zone of interest protected by Title VII and had standing to sue.