The United States Supreme Court just issued a landmark decision in a case called Thompson v. North American Stainless (S. Ct., January 24, 2011). In its decision, the Court ruled that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does indeed create a claim of retaliation for individuals in situations where that individual did not himself engage in protected activity.
Specifically, in Thompson, the plaintiff alleged that he was fired from his job because his fiance, who worked for the same company, filed a charge against their employer with the EEOC. In other words, the plaintiff claimed he was fired for something his fiance did, and not for something he did himself.
The Court’s decision addressed two issues: (1) whether the plaintiff’s termination constituted “retaliation” as defined by Title VII, and (2) whether the plaintiff had “standing” (or a legal right to file suit) to bring a lawsuit under Title VII.
In addressing the first issue, the Court stated that it had “little difficulty” concluding that the plaintiff’s termination constituted retaliation under Title VII. In reaching this conclusion, the Court noted that Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision prohibits any employer action that “might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.” Based on this standard, the Court then stated it was “obvious that a reasonable worker might be dissuaded from engaging in protected activity if she knew that her fiance would be fired.” Therefore, the plaintiff’s termination constituted retaliation under Title VII.
The Court then declined, however, to establish a fixed-class of relationships for which third-party retaliation would be unlawful under Title VII. Rather, the Court noted that “firing a close family member will almost always meet the . . . standard, and inflicting a milder reprisal on a mere acquaintance will almost never do so[.]” Beyond giving these two examples, the Court simply stated that whether third-party retaliation occurred will “depend on the particular circumstances” of the case.
In addressing the second issue, the Court adopted a “zone of interests” test, which protects individuals who have an interest “arguably sought to be protected” by the statute at issue. Based on the “zone of interests” test, the Court ruled that the plaintiff in this case did indeed have standing to sue his employer under Title VII.
This decision is rather groundbreaking, and effectively overturned the current state of the law in at least four Federal circuits. This decision also opens the door for all types of lawsuits to be filed by individuals claiming they were the victims of third-party retaliation, and will likely result in a variety of decisions by federal courts trying to delineate when and whether a third-party cause of action for retaliation exists. Therefore, until courts can provide employers with further guidance on when a claim for third-party retaliation exists, employers should be cautious in issuing disciplinary actions in situations involving close family members such as a fiance, spouse, mother, father, or child of an employee who engaged in protected conduct under Title VII.