Let’s say you work for the same employer as your fiancé/fiancée–and she/he complains of sex discrimination. Can your employer retaliate against you because of his/her complaint? Believe it or not, this was an open question until January 24, 2011, when the United States Supreme Court delivered its answer in the case of Thompson v. North American Stainless, L.P. The answer was an emphatic and unanimous–NO!
Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination in the terms and conditions of employment based upon sex as well as race, national origin, and nationality. It also protects an employee who opposes discrimination and makes a good faith complaint about discriminatory conduct. An employee who believes an employer has discriminated her or retaliated against her must file a complaint with the EEOC within 300 days of the last discriminatory act in order to preserve her ability to file an action in court.
Eric Thompson and his fiancée (now wife), Miriam Regaldo, worked for North American Stainless (NAS) in Carroll County KY. In September 2002, Regaldo filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleging sex discrimination in violation of Title VII. Three weeks after receiving notice of the charge, NAS terminated Thompson’s employment. Thompson filed a complaint alleging that he was fired in retaliation of Regaldo’s charge. The company denied it and argued that even if it did retaliate against Thompson, Title VII did not protect Thompson since he had not made the complaint.
The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky agreed and granted NAS summary judgment in favor of the NAS. Thompson appealed to the he U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which upheld the lower court and concluded that Thompson was not entitled to sue NAS for retaliation because he had not engaged in any activity protected by the Title VII.
In an eight-page opinion by Justice Scalia, the Supreme Court unanimously held that (1) North American Stainless violated Title VII if it fired Thompson in retaliation for Regalado’s complaint; and (2) Title VII provides Thompson with a cause of action against his former employer. The Supreme Court stated:
… Thompson is not an accidental victim of the retaliation-collateral damage, so to speak, of the employer’s unlawful act. To the contrary, injuring him was the employer’s intended means of harming Regalado. Hurting him was the unlawful act by which the employer punished her. In those circumstances, we think Thompson well within the zone of interests sought to be protected by Title VII.”
Scalia acknowledged Stainless’ argument that allowing third-party actions could open up the doors to claims based on far more frivolous relationships but he noted that wasn’t enough to categorically prevent them. He explained that firing a close family member will almost always chill the employees’ Title VII rights, while retaliating against a mere acquaintance will almost never do so, beyond that the Court was reluctant to generalize. The good news for employees seeking lawful treatment in the workplace is that our highest court has further narrowed the options for employers looking ways to retaliate.