Retaliation claims under Title VII recently became available to a new group of employees, including friends and family of employees who complain about discrimination. The United States Supreme Court unanimously held in Thompson v. North American Stainless that Title VII creates a cause of action for a third party who suffers some adverse employment action because of an association with an employee who complained of discrimination.
The facts of the case are simple: Thompson and his then fiancée (now wife) worked for North American Stainless (“NAS”). The fiancée filed a gender discrimination complaint against NAS with the EEOC. Three weeks after receiving notice of the fiancée’s complaint, NAS fired Thompson. Thompson then sued NAS claiming that he was fired in retaliation for his fiancée’s protected activity, which was filing a gender discrimination complaint.
Justice Scalia, writing for the Court, stated that there were two question presented: First, did NAS’ firing of Thompson constitute unlawful retaliation? And second, if it did, does Title VII grant Thompson a cause of action?
With regard to the first question, Justice Scalia wrote, “Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision must be construed to cover a broad range of employer conduct.” Furthermore, Title VII prohibits any employer from taking action that might dissuade a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination. The Court stated, “We think it is obvious that a reasonable worker might be dissuaded from engaging in protected activity if she knew her fiancé would be fired.”
The Court then declined to identify a fixed class of relationships for which third-party reprisals are unlawful, stating that, “Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision is simply not reducible to a comprehensive set of clear rules.”
The second question raised by Thompson, whether the third party victim has a cause of action under Title VII, was more difficult, and revolved around that meaning of the word “aggrieved.” The Court adopted the “zone of interest” approach.
Under the “zone of interest” approach, “a plaintiff may not sue unless he falls within the ‘zone of interests’ sought to be protected by the statutory provision whose violation forms the legal basis for the complaint.” In other words, Mr. Thompson can sue for third party retaliation under Title VII because his employment was terminated by NAS, but a stock holder could not because her harm is not related to employment.
Bottom line: More employees are now eligible to bring retaliation claims, which are some of the hardest types of Title VII claims to defend. Employers should consider whether any adverse employment action creates the appearance of retaliation before moving forward with it.