This post was written by: Yesenia Francisco, Law Clerk
Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Class of 2012
A recent U.S. Supreme Court case has broadened the scope of individuals who may be able to raise a claim of retaliation.In Thompson v. North American Stainless, (2011), the Court unanimously held that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”) creates a cause of action for third-party victims of retaliation.
The plaintiff, Eric Thompson, and his fiancée had been employed by North American Stainless (“NAS”). Thompson’s fiancée filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission discrimination complaint against NAS, and three weeks later, the company fired Thompson. Thompson ultimately sued, alleging that NAS retaliated against him as a result of his fiancee’s complaint against the company.
The Court had little difficulty in finding that based on the facts presented, NAS’ termination of Thompson violated Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision, which prohibits an employer from discriminating against any of his employees because he has made a charge under Title VII. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a). The Court reasoned that Title VII’s anti-retaliatory provision must be construed to cover a broad range of employer conduct. Furthermore, Title VII prohibits any employer action that “well might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.
Under this broad standard, the Court concluded that it is “obvious that a reasonable worker might be dissuaded from engaging in protected activity if she knew that her fiancé would be fired.” Id.
In deciding the second issue of whether a third party can sue for retaliation under Title VII, the Court determined that an employee constitutes a “person aggrieved” and is eligible to bring a Title VII challenge when that person “falls within the zone of interests” protected by the statute. Because Thompson was an employee of NAS and the purpose of Title VII is to protect employees from their employers’ unlawful conduct, the Court found that Thompson was within the zone of interests sought to be protected by Title VII. The Court declined to adopt a bright-line test for which relationships would be covered under this standard. In an attempt to provide at least some guidance, Justice Scalia noted that while the termination of a close family member will almost always meet this standard, retaliation against a mere acquaintance may not.
Although it does not establish a bright-line test for third-party retaliation claims, this decision could have an impact upon employees’ incentives to file discrimination claims as well as the frequency of employers’ retaliation on third parties. In creating an independent cause of action for retaliation on behalf of friends and family members who have not engaged in protected activity, the opinion expands the group of employees who can actually file Title VII claims. It is now likely that employers will now take extra precautions when taking adverse employment action against any worker closely related, married or engaged to an employee who has engaged in protected activity.