Monday, January 24, 2011

3rd party retaliation under Title VII? US Supreme Court says it's possible

One of the cases we were following at the U.S. Supreme Court is Thompson v. North American Stainless. That is the case where one employee (Miriam Regalado) filed a charge of discrimination against the Defendant while she was still working for it. Her fiance, Eric Thompson, also worked for the Defendant. He was fired three weeks after the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission notified the Defendant of Regalado's charge. He filed a retaliation claim under Title VII, alleging that his firing was because his fiancee engaged in protected activity.

The district court in Kentucky disagreed, dismissing Thompson's case on summary judgement. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals (covering Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee) affirmed the decision of the district court.

The U.S. Supreme Court said two questions needed to be answered:

  1. Did the Defendant's firing of Thompson constitute unlawful retaliation?
  2. If it did, does Title VII grant Thompson a cause of action?

The Court held unanimously that:
  1. Title VII's anti-retaliation provision, which is more broadly construed than its anti-discrimination provision, prohibits more than conduct which only impact the terms and conditions of employment.
  2. The anti-retaliation provision prohibits actions by an employer that "well might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination."
  3. Title VII did give Thompson the right to sue, because he is a "person aggrieved" under the statute.
  4. To be "aggrieved" under Title VII means that Thompson is someone who has interests that are sought to be protected by Title VII.
  5. If you accept the facts as Thompson represents them, he was collateral damage of his fiancee's charge of discrimination, squarely placing him within the zone of protection intended by Title VII's anti-retaliation provision.

What are the take-away points?
  1. Remember that this case decides a procedural point, but it does not decide whether Thompson actually experienced retaliation. Rather, the decision only means that Thompson should be allowed to present his case to a fact-finder (judge or jury) and let that body decide whether Title VII was violated.
  2. It also means that where someone raises a claim for third-party retaliation, the chances of disposing of the case at the summary judgment level have been greatly diminished. The Court acknowledged that its holding does raise a question about who is a protected third-party? Is being something less than a fiance going to be enough? What about if you're a close friend, acquaintance, or simply a co-worker with no defining relationship outside the workplace? Regardless of this gray area, the Court believed that the anti-retaliation provision's breadth could not be limited by creating bright-line relationship rules for its application.
  3. The Court ruled unanimously. This means that the Court wants to send a clear message about its holding and the intended consequences of the same. (Justice Kagan, the newest Justice, did not participate in the deliberations.)

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