Employee Rights: Supreme Court Says Yes to Retaliation Claims Under Title VII

…it is more important than ever for employers to ensure that their legitimate reasons for adverse employment actions are sufficiently and properly documented. (Ford & Harrison LLP)

Here’s legal analysis of the January 24, 2011, Supreme Court decision in Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP – an interesting case that started when Eric Thompson (an employee of North American Stainless) filed a “retaliation” claim against the company after he was fired. Thompson’s claim: he had been let go because his fiancee, Miriam Regalado, also an employee of the company, had filed a discrimination suit based on unfair gender treatment. Here’s what the lawyers say – including takeaways for employers:

Supreme Court: “Employee Who Never Complained Of Discrimination May Bring Claim For Retaliation” (by Fisher & Phillips LLP):

“The Supreme Court in a unanimous ruling determined that an employee who does not directly engage in protected activity can still assert a claim for retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act as a victim who falls within the ‘zone of interests’ of protection afforded by the statute. Writing for the majority, Justice Scalia stated ‘[w]e think it obvious that a reasonable worker might be dissuaded from engaging in protected activity if she knew that her fiancé would be fired.’ And further, that the employee ‘is a person aggrieved with standing to sue.’

Eric Thompson and his fiancée, Miriam Regalado, both worked for North American Stainless. In September 2002, Regalado filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleging that she was discriminated against because of her gender. On February 13, 2003, the EEOC notified North American Stainless of Regalado’s charge. Approximately three weeks later, Thompson was terminated from employment. He and Regalado were engaged at the time of his termination. The engagement was common knowledge in the workplace…” Read on»

U.S. Supreme Court Allows Lawsuit By Employee Who Claimed He Was Fired In Retaliation For His Fiancée’s Discrimination Complaint (by Sheppard Mullin):

“The Court first determined that the alleged conduct was prohibited by Title VII. In doing so, the Court explained that Title VII?s anti-retaliation provision has been interpreted broadly, and prohibits any act that would “have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.” Applying that rule, the Court held that a reasonable employee would be dissuaded from making a protected complaint if she knew that her fiancé would be fired as a result. Thus, the conduct alleged by Thompson, if true, would constitute unlawful “retaliation” under Title VII. However, the Court declined to say how closely related the plaintiff would have be to the complaining employee for an adverse action to be considered retaliation, leaving some uncertainty as to how broadly this rule will be applied in the future…” Read on»

SCOTUS Dramatically Expands Who Can Sue for Retaliation (Warner Norcross & Judd):

“Although Thompson, as Regalado’s fiancé, was well within the ―zone of interest, the difficult question for employers is just how far the zone of interest extends? Does it include friends of the complaining employee? What if the employer does not know of the alleged connection between the employee who complained and the employee who was disciplined or fired – how will it prove that? These questions will surely be the stuff of future litigation…” Read on»

Terminated Employee Within Fiancée’s Title VII “Zone of Interest” (by Siegel, O’Connor, O’Donnell & Beck, P.C):

“Retaliation claims already top the types of claims filed with the EEOC. For employers, Monday’s decision will have at least one immediate impact: an increased number of third-party retaliation claims. And the lack of a clear standard from the Court means that employers should expect increased legal uncertainly as courts and regulatory bodies digest yesterday’s ruling…” Read on»

Supreme Court Permits Third-Party Retaliation Claims (Ford & Harrison LLP):

“The Court’s decision significantly expands the potential scope of Title VII’s antiretaliation provision and will likely result in additional lawsuits by those claiming their relationship with someone who filed an EEOC charge was the reason they were discharged or subjected to some other adverse action. In light of the fact-specific nature of such claims, they may be difficult to resolve short of a jury trial. Accordingly, it is more important than ever for employers to ensure that their legitimate reasons for adverse employment actions are sufficiently and properly documented…” Read on»

Supreme Court Holds That Fired Fiancé of EEOC Complainant Has Title VII Retaliation Claim (Foley Hoag LLP):

Thompson suggests that the two employees need not be related for such a claim to exist. Employers, therefore, should be mindful of this new class of retaliation claims when making employment decisions…” Read on»

U.S. Supreme Court Prohibits Retaliating Against Third-Parties in the Workplace (by Jackson Walker):

“This new decision by the U.S. Supreme Court obligates employers to exercise greater care in reacting (if at all) to claims of discrimination. Employers are best advised to ensure that well-documented legitimate, non-discriminatory or non-retaliatory reasons underlie any significant disciplinary action towards any employee. To the extent possible, employers are also well advised to consider timing issues when dealing with discipline or termination issues for employees who are related to another employee, particularly where there is a family or close personal relationship…” Read more»

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