Protection Against Retaliation Expanded
Miriam Regalado, a quality control engineer and her fiancé, Eric Thompson, a metallurgical engineer, worked for the same company; North American Stainless. In February 2003, Regalado filed a charge of sex discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Three weeks later, NAS fired Thompson.
Thompson filed his own charge of employment discrimination and retaliation with the EEOC, claiming that NAS fired him to retaliate against Regalado for filing her charge of sex discrimination. The district court granted summary judgment to NAS holding that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not permit third-party claims of retaliation. The 6th Circuit ultimately held that Thompson was not included in the class of persons for which Congress had created a retaliation cause of action because Thomas had not engaged in any statutorily protected activity himself prior to the filing of his charge.
On January 24, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed. In Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP, 562 U.S. ____ (2011), the court reversed the lower courts, and addressed two issues; first, whether terminating Thompson in retaliation for his fiancée’s EEOC complaint was unlawful under Title VII; and second, whether Thompson had standing to pursue a claim of retaliation in addition to any claim of retaliation by Regalado herself. The court held that any reasonable worker would be dissuaded from filing a charge of discrimination if she believed her fiancé would be terminated because of her complaint.
The court further addressed whether Thompson had standing to sue as a “person aggrieved” under Title VII. The court held that a third-party retaliation claim under Title VII must be denied if the plaintiff’s interests are not within the “zone of interests” sought to be protected by Congress. The court held that Thompson falls within the zone of interests protected by Title VII, that he is a person aggrieved, and that he, therefore, has standing to sue under Title VII. The court noted that Thompson was not an accidental victim of retaliation but that injuring Thompson was the employer’s intended means of harming Regalado.
This decision makes great progress in protecting persons aggrieved by unlawful retaliation. The lower courts will have to sort out which third-party employee relationships fall within the “zone of interest” for the purpose of Title VII retaliation cases. Close family members will almost always meet the standard whereas actions against mere acquaintances may not meet the standard. Employers, as always, should be mindful of the timing of adverse employment actions since the temporal proximity of events can give rise to an inference of retaliation for the purposes of establishing a prima facie case of retaliation under Title VII.