Supreme Court Rules That Employer Can Be Sued For Retaliating Against Fiancé Of Worker Who Filed Discrimination Claim
By Barran Liebman
Oregon law firm
In a new ruling that expands the legal protections against retaliation, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on January 24, 2011, that an employee who claims he was fired because his fiancé filed a sex discrimination charge may sue their mutual employer for retaliation under federal law. The case is Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP.
Thompson and his fiancé both worked for North American Stainless (NAS). He claimed that after his fiancé filed a sex discrimination charge against NAS with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the company retaliated by firing him. Thompson sued under Title VII, claiming that NAS fired him to retaliate against his fiancé for filing her charge with the EEOC. The structure of the claim was certainly unusual — it would probably not have raised questions if his fiancé had sued on the theory that the company fired her fiancé to retaliate against her. But the twist here was that she would not have suffered any financial loss — since he was the one who lost the job.
Two lower courts found that Thompson could not sue because he had not engaged in an activity that Title VII protects. In other words, he had not been fired after complaining about discrimination himself. The person who had engaged in protected conduct was his fiancé.
The Supreme Court disagreed and found that Thompson could sue. In making this determination, the Court examined the “zone of interests” that Title VII protects and stated that the law’s prohibition against retaliation was designed to “cover a broad range of employer conduct.” Thompson fell within the protected zone, the Court said, because he was an employee of NAS, and Title VII was designed to protect employees from their employers’ unlawful actions. Additionally, he was not an accidental victim of the retaliation. Instead, NAS accused of intentionally committed an unlawful act against Thompson with the goal of punishing his fiancé.
This ruling is significant because it expands the potential group of persons who may sue based on retaliation to include those who did not engage in protected activity themselves, but have a relationship with someone who did. Notably, the Court did not decide what degree of relationship was necessary to bring a claim like Thompson’s, though it did state that close family relationships would almost always qualify, but mere acquaintances would not. For now, employers need to keep these new rules in mind when considering disciplinary action against employees who have relationships with co-workers who have complained about discrimination.
Electronic Alerts are written by Barran Liebman attorneys for their clients and friends. Alerts are not intended as legal advice, but as employment law, labor law, and employee benefits announcements.