Yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a male employee, who alleges he was fired because his fiancee filed a sex discrimination claim against the company that employed them both, may pursue a retaliation claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Court, applying the standard it established in the 2006 case Burlington Northern v. White, said there is no dispute that an employee considering filing a discrimination charge might well be dissuaded if she knew her employer would react by firing her fiancee. (In Burlington, the Court ruled that Title VII retaliation is not limited to actions that affect the terms and conditions of employment, but also covers any actions that "well might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.") So the female employee who filed the original sex bias claim would have an action for retaliation. The more difficult question, according to the Court, was whether the male employee is a “person aggrieved” within the meaning of Title VII and thus entitled to sue.
The man, Eric Thompson, alleged that his employer, North American Stainless, fired him three weeks after it received notice that Miriam Regalado, his fiancee (now his wife), filed a sex discrimination claim against the company. Both the district court and appeals court ruled against Thompson, reasoning that while Regalado could state a retaliation claim based on Thompson’s firing, Thompson himself could not make a claim under Title VII because he had not engaged in protected activity.
The Supreme Court reversed, finding that Thompson is a “person aggrieved” under Title VII. The scope of a "person aggrieved," according to the Court, is not limited to an employee who engages in protected activity, but extends to a person who falls within the "zone of interests" covered by the statute.
"Thompson was an employee of [North American Stainless], and the purpose of Title VII is to protect employees from their employers' unlawful actions," the Court said. "Moreover, accepting the facts as alleged, Thompson is not an accidental victim of the retaliation--collateral damage, so to speak, of their employer's unlawful actions. To the contrary, injuring him was the employer's intended means of harming Regalado. Hurting him was the unlawful act by which the employer punished her. In those circumstances, we think Thompson well within the zone of interests sought to be protected by Title VII. He is a person aggrieved with standing to sue."
So how far does the "zone of interest" extend? The Court's answer, or non-answer, to that question is less than helpful to employers.
The Court recognized the "difficult line-drawing problems" with regard to the types of of relationships entitled to protection: "Perhaps retaliating against an employe by firing his fiancee would dissuade the employee from engaging in protected activity, but what about firing an employee's girlfriend, close friend, or trusted co-worker?" In response to the employer's argument that employers would be at risk any time they fire an employee who happens to have a connection to a different employee who filed a discrimination claim, the Court said:
“Although we acknowledge the force of this point, we do not think that it justifies a categorical rule that third-party reprisals do not violate Title VII. As explained above, we adopted a broad standard in Burlington [a 2006 case] because Title VII's antiretaliation provision is worded broadly. We think there is no textual basis for making an exception to it for third-party reprisals, and a preference for clear rules cannot justify departure from the statutory text."
"We must also decline to identify a fixed class of relationships for which third-party reprisals are unlawful. We expect that firing a close family member will almost always meet the Burlington standard, and inflicting a milder reprisal on a mere acquaintance will almost never do so, but beyond that we are reluctant to generalize. . . . Given the broad statutory text and the variety of workplace contexts in which retaliation may occur, Title VII's antiretaliation provision is simply not reducible to a comprehensive set of clear rules."
Thompson v. North American Stainless LP, No. 09-291 (Jan. 24, 2011).
This ruling was the fourth in a recent line of retaliation cases in which the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the employee. Moreover, EEOC statistics show that retaliation cases are on the rise. Make sure the managers and HR employees in your organization are well-trained in how to respond—and how not to respond—when an employee alleges discrimination.