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U.S. Supreme Court: Title VII allows claim by worker allegedly fired because his fiancée filed discrimination charge

In a decision issued yesterday, the United States Supreme Court addressed unlawful retaliation under Title VII in an unusual context.  Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP, No. 09-291 (Jan. 24, 2011).

Thompson claimed that North American Stainless (NAS) fired him because his then fiancée (also a NAS employee) had filed a sex discrimination complaint against the company.  NAS claimed it fired Thompson for performance reasons.

The District Court granted NAS summary judgment on Thompson’s claims on the ground that third-party retaliation claims are not permitted under Title VII.  The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal, concluding that Thompson was not entitled to sue NAS for retaliation because he had not engaged in any protected activity under the statute.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court reversed, sending the case back to trial on the issue of retaliation.  The Court stated that, if the facts as Thompson alleged were true, then his firing by NAS constituted unlawful retaliation.  Consequently, summary judgment was not appropriate.

The Supreme Court noted that the anti-retaliation provisions of Title VII were broadly written and must be broadly construed.  They prohibit any employer action that might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a claim of discrimination.  The Court found here that a reasonable worker might be dissuaded from engaging in protected activity if she knew her fiancée would be fired.

In recognizing a cause of action, the Court stated that a claimant must fall within the “zone of interests” protected by Title VII.  The Court noted that Thompson was an employee of NAS, and that the purpose of Title VII is to protect employees from their employer’s unlawful actions.  The Court concluded that, accepting the facts as alleged, Thompson was not an accidental victim of the retaliation.  To the contrary, “injuring him was the employer’s intended means of harming his fiancée.”  The Court noted, “Hurting him was the unlawful act by which the employer punished her.”  In these circumstances the Court concluded that Thompson was “well within the interests sought to be protected by Title VII.”

Retaliation cases are on the rise.  Cases like this one open the door wider for plaintiffs to bring claims of retaliation.  The Supreme Court refused to identify a fixed class of relationships for which third-party reprisals are unlawful.  Employers now must expand their analysis of potential retaliation to include certain relationships the subject of an employment action may have.  Where that relationship, like in Thompson, is a close one, extra care must be taken to ensure that a proposed employment action is well documented and appropriate under the circumstances.

January 25, 2011

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