The U.S. Supreme Court Finds Employee is Protected from Retaliation Due to His “Association” With a Co-worker Who Filed a Complaint

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February 9, 2011

Last week, the United States Supreme Court decided the case of Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP. In a unanimous decision (Justice Kagan recusing herself), the Court held that Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision applied to an employee who was terminated after his fiancee filed a complaint against the company.
Background North American Stainless (Stainless) fired Miriam Regalado. Regalado later filed an EEOC claim against Stainless, alleging that she had been discharged because she was a woman. Three weeks after Regalado filed her claim, Stainless terminated her fiance, Eric Thompson who also worked for the company. Thompson then filed his own claim – alleging the company terminated him because of Regalado’s charge.
Supreme Court’s Decision Stainless argued that Thompson could not bring a retaliation claim because he did not engage in any “protected activity” under Title VII. Protected activity is usually established by filing a complaint, bringing an EEOC charge, etc. The Court disagreed. The Court noted that Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision “must be construed to cover a broad range of employer conduct.” As the Court has determined in previous cases, the anti-retaliation provisions of Title VII are considerably broader than Title VII’s substantive anti-discrimination provisions. The Court noted that the anti-retaliation provision prohibits an employer from “discriminating against any of its employees” for engaging in protected conduct and prohibits conduct that might dissuade “a reasonable worker” from making or supporting a charge of discrimination. The Court went on to state that “[w]e think it obvious that a reasonable worker might be dissuaded from engaging in protected activity if she knew that her fiance would be fired.”
Stainless argued that if Thompson prevails it would “place the employer at risk any time it fires any employee who happens to have a connection to a different employee who filed a charge.” The Supreme Court rejected this argument, stressing that there is “no textual basis for making an exception for third-party reprisals, and a preference for clear rules cannot justify departing from statutory text. The Court also rejected the invitation to define a “fixed class of relationships for which third-party reprisals are unlawful.” Recognizing the opposite ends of the spectrum (a close family member vs a “mere acquaintance”), the Court concluded that it could not generalize and that future cases will turn on their individual facts.
What WI Employers Need To Know
Before terminating a friend or family member of a co-worker who has recently filed a claim or engaged in other “protected activity,” employers may want to be sure that a legitimate business reason clearly supports the termination. Unfortunately, this case does not provide clear guidance to employers regarding who has standing to sue. We know that the immediate family member is likely to be covered. What about an employee who is just dating another employee? What about an employee who is in the same department? Until we have more lower court decisions on this issue, employers should be cautious in this area.
If you have questions regarding the above, please contact Sara Ackermann, the author of this article, or any of the attorneys in the Employment, Benefits & Labor Relations Practice Group of Ruder Ware.

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