• Should There Be Protection for Family Members Under Title VII?
  • April 25, 2011
  • Law Firm: Becker & Poliakoff, P.A. - Fort Myers Office
  • For those who believe the U.S. Supreme Court is hostile to workers’ rights, a recent decision in a closely watched Title VII case may prove you wrong.

    In Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP. , the Supreme Court held that (a) an employer violated the anti-retaliation provision in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by firing an employee in retaliation for his fiancée filing an EEOC charge, and (b) the employee had standing to file his own EEOC charge and civil action against his employer for unlawful retaliation under Title VII.

    There is a saying that lawyers often use - “bad facts make bad law” - and this case is a good example. Plaintiff Thompson and his fiancée were employees of North American Stainless (NAS). In February 2003, the EEOC notified NAS that Thompson's fiancée had filed a charge alleging sex discrimination. Three weeks later, NAS fired Thompson, though the record does not reveal a strong factual basis for the company’s decision to get rid of him. In other words, it looked like NAS was firing the guy because of his fiancée’s actions.

    After Thompson filed his own charge with the EEOC, he filed suit in federal court under Title VII, alleging that NAS fired him in retaliation for his fiancée filing an EEOC charge. The federal district (trial) court granted summary judgment to NAS, holding that Title VII “does not permit third party retaliation claims.” After a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed the trial court, the full Sixth Circuit reheard the appeal and affirmed the lower court ruling in favor of NAS. The Sixth Circuit reasoned that Thompson was not within the class of persons protected by Title VII’s retaliation provision because he did not engage in any statutorily protected activity, either on his own behalf or on behalf of his fiancée.

    The Supreme Court reversed. Justice Antonin Scalia, who delivered the Supreme Court’s opinion, is not usually regarded as a champion of workers’ rights. However, Justice Scalia had “little difficulty concluding that if the facts alleged by Thompson are true, then NAS’s firing of Thompson violated Title VII.”  In other words, said the usually pro-employer Scalia, this case was open and shut.

    Like most Supreme Court decisions, Thompson leaves certain questions unanswered. For example, what types of relationships are protected? All family members? What about friends? All co-workers? Lower courts may apply Thompson to apply whenever it appears that an employer’s adverse action against one employee has the potential to dissuade another employee from exercising Title VII rights.

    Lessons learned? Even in strongly at-will states like Florida, where it is pretty easy to fire employees with relative impunity, employers need to be vigilant regarding the potential of a retaliation claim when they decide to fire or discipline an employee.