Yesterday, in Thompson v. North American Stainlessi LP, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an employee-friendly ruling in a third-party (or associational) retaliation case. The Court unanimously held that a man who was fired after his fiancée filed a gender discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) could sue for retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In Thompson, Eric Thompson worked at North American Stainless, LP (NAS) with his then-fiancée, Miriam Regalado, who filed a gender discrimination charge with the EEOC. A few weeks after the EEOC informed NAS of Regalado’s charge, the company terminated Thompson’s employment. Thompson sued NAS, claiming it retaliated against him for his fiancée’s protected activity. The trial court ruled in favor of NAS, and the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, holding that Thompson couldn’t sue under Title VII because he didn’t engage in protected activity.
The Supreme Court first had to determine whether Title VII prohibits an employer from retaliating against an employee based on the employee’s close association with an individual who engaged in protected activity. The Court easily concluded that if Thompson’s claims were true, NAS’ termination of his employment violated Title VII. According to the Court, “Title VII’s antiretaliation provision prohibits any employer action that ‘well might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.'” The Court additionally noted that it thought it was “obvious that a reasonable worker might be dissuaded from engaging in protected activity if she knew that her fiancé would be fired.”
The Court next had to decide whether Thompson could sue NAS for retaliation under Title VII. The Court concluded that Thompson fell within the “zone of interests protected by Title VII” since the statute is supposed to protect employees from employers’ unlawful actions. Additionally, the court stated that if the facts alleged by Thompson were true, injuring him was NAS’ intended means of harming his fiancée.
Although the Court ruled that an employee could sue for third-party retaliation, it didn’t “identify a fixed class of relationships for which third-party reprisals are unlawful.” However, the Court did say that firing an employee’s close family member as a means of retaliation would most likely be unlawful.
HR Guide to Employment Law: A practical compliance reference manual covering 14 topics, including discrimination and firing