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New Supreme Court Decision Allows Third Party Title VII Retaliation Claims

Insight February 11, 2011

The recent United States Supreme Court decision in Thompson v. North American Stainless expands Title VII by recognizing third-party retaliation claims on behalf of people who did not themselves in engage in protected activity.

          The recent United States Supreme Court decision in Thompson v. North American Stainless held that an employee claiming he was terminated because his fiancée filed a discrimination charge against their mutual employer may pursue a retaliation claim under Title VII.  This decision expands the scope of Title VII's anti-retaliation provision and could lead to additional lawsuits filed by individuals claiming they were fired or subject to an adverse employment actions because they had a relationship with a co-worker who filed an action against their employer.  

 

            The case involved Eric Thompson and his fiancée, Miriam Regalado, who were both employees of North American Steel (NAS.)   Regalado filed a charge against NAS with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the EEOC) alleging sex discrimination.  The EEOC notified NAS of the charge.  Three weeks later, NAS fired Thompson.  In response, Thompson filed a Title VII lawsuit against NAS claiming he was fired as retaliation against Regalado for filing her charge with the EEOC. 

 

            The anti-retaliation provision of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits an employer from discriminating against any of its employees for engaging in protected conduct.  The Court explained that this provision of Title VII was intended to protect against any employer action that may dissuade a worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.  Reasoning that it was "obvious" a worker might be dissuaded from making or supporting a complaint of discrimination if she knew her fiancé would be terminated as a result, the Court, accepting the alleged facts, found that firing Thompson was an unlawful act by which NAS intended to punish Regalado for bringing her EEOC charge. 

 

            Although the Supreme Court refused to identify a fixed class of relationships for which third-party reprisals are unlawful, it noted that firing a close family member will almost always right to that level, while a retaliation against a mere acquaintance will almost never do so.   

 

            While this ruling does not establish a clear rule for third-party retaliation claims, employers must now be mindful of an employee's family and close relationships within the workplace.  When deciding to take an adverse action against an employee, an employer should take care not only when the employee has engaged in protected activity but also when the employee is closely associated with someone else who has.