• United States Supreme Court: Former Employee Who Was Discharged Shortly After His Fiancée Filed a Sexual Discrimination Charge Against Their Employer Could State a Claim For Unlawful Retaliation
  • February 21, 2011 | Authors: Laura A. Izon; Bruce A. Scheidt; David W. Tyra
  • Law Firm: Kronick Moskovitz Tiedemann & Girard A Law Corporation - Sacramento Office
  • In Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP, (--- S.Ct. ----, U.S., January 24, 2011), the United States Supreme Court considered whether a man who was discharged three weeks after his fiancée filed a sexual discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against their employer could state a claim for retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Supreme Court held that the man could state a claim for retaliation against his former employer.

    Eric Thompson (“Thompson”) and his fiancée, Miriam Regalado (“Regalado”), both worked for North American Stainless, LP (“Employer”). In February 2003, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) notified Employer that Regalado had filed a sexual discrimination charge against Employer. Three weeks after it received the notice from the EEOC, Employer fired Thompson.

    Thompson filed a charge with the EEOC. Thompson alleged Employer retaliated against him in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”) for Regalado’s filing of her sexual discrimination charge against Employer. After conciliation efforts failed, Thompson filed a lawsuit against Employer. A federal district court granted summary judgment in favor of Employer on the ground that third-party retaliation claims are not permitted under Title VII. The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ultimately affirmed the trial court’s decision.

    The Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the court of appeals and remanded the case for further proceedings. The Court noted that the appeal presents two issues: (1) whether Employer’s action in firing Thompson constituted unlawful retaliation, and (2) whether Title VII grants Thompson a cause of action. The Court answered both questions in the affirmative.

    The Court found that if the facts alleged by Thompson are true, then Employer’s action in firing him violated Title VII. Title VII makes illegal “discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin ‘with respect to . . . compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment,’ and discriminatory practices that would ‘deprive any individual of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect his status as an employee.’” The antiretaliation provision of Title VII “prohibits an employer from ‘discriminating against any of his employees’ for engaging in protected conduct, without specifying the employer acts that are prohibited.” The Court noted that it had previously held that Title VII’s “antiretaliation provision, unlike the substantive provision, is not limited to discriminatory actions that affect the terms and conditions of employment.” Instead, the “antiretaliation provision prohibits any employer action that ‘well might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.’”

    The Court determined 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 rejected Employer’s argument that interpreting Title VII as prohibiting reprisals against third parties will lead to problems drawing lines as to which types of relationships are entitled to protection. The Court declined “to identify a fixed class of relationships for which third-party reprisals are unlawful.” The Court, however, did comment that the firing of a close family member will almost always be entitled to protection but that the infliction of a milder reprisal against a mere acquaintance will almost never be protected.

    The Court also found that Thompson could sue Employer for the alleged violation of Title VII. Title VII provides “‘a civil action may be brought . . . by the person claiming to be aggrieved.’” The Court previously “suggested in dictum that the Title VII aggrievement requirement conferred a right to sue on all who satisfied Article III standing.” Article III standing “consists of injury in fact caused by the defendant and remediable by the Court.” In Thompson’s case, the Court declined to follow the dictum from its previous decision, which it described as “ill-considered.”

    The Administrative Procedure Act “authorizes suit to challenge a federal agency by any ‘person . . . adversely affected or aggrieved . . . within the meaning of a relevant statute.’” This language has been interpreted by the Court to mean that “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 his complaint.” Under this test, a plaintiff will not state a claim if his or her “interests are so marginally related to or inconsistent with the purposes implicit in the statute that it cannot reasonably be assumed that Congress intended to permit the suit.” The Court held “that the term ‘aggrieved’ in Title VII incorporates this test, enabling suit by any plaintiff with an interest ‘arguably [sought] to be protected by the statutes’” but excluding a plaintiff who may “be injured in an Article III sense but whose interests are unrelated to the statutory prohibitions in Title VII.”

    The Court held Thompson falls within the zone of interests that are protected by Title VII because he was Employer’s employee and Title VII’s purpose is to protect employees from the unlawful actions of their employers. Therefore, the Court held Thompson is a person aggrieved who has standing to sue.