Tuesday, January 25, 2011

U.S. Supreme Court Recognizes Third-Party Retaliation Claims Under Title VII

On January 24, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court held, in the closely-watched case of Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP that Title VII's anti-retaliation provision permits "third-party retaliation claims."

Prior to 2003, Eric Thompson and his fiance, Miriam Regalado were employees of North American Stainless (NAS). In February of 2003, NAS was notified by the EEOC that Regalado had filed a charge alleging sex discrimination. Three weeks later, Thompson was fired by NAS.

Thompson then filed his own charge with the EEOC, claiming that NAS had terminated him in order to retaliate against Regalado for her filing a sex discrimination charge with the EEOC. The district court dismissed Thompson's claim, holding that Title VII did not permit third-party retaliation claims. The Sixth Circuit, after a rehearing en banc, affirmed the dismissal of Thompson's claim, holding that he had not engaged in any statutorily protected conduct under Title VII.

On appeal, the Supreme Court reversed, and held that Thompson has a viable retaliation claim under Title VII. First, the Court noted that "we have little difficulty concluding that if the facts alleged by Thompson are true, then NAS's firing of Thompson violated Title VII." The Court reaffirmed that "Title VII's antiretaliation provision must be construed to cover a broad range of employer conduct," and that this provision "prohibits any employer action that might well have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination." Given this basis, the Court stated 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."

While recognizing that third parties are protected from retaliation under Title VII, the Court refused "to identify a fixed class of relationships for which third-party reprisals are unlawful," but re-emphasized that the standard for judging harm under the anti-retaliation provision "must be objective."

The more difficult question facing the Court was whether Thompson had standing to sue NAS within Title VII's category of a "person claiming to be aggrieved." First, the Court specifically rejected the argument that Title VII's "person claiming to be aggrieved," language automatically grants any individual who suffers harm under Title VII Article III standing in every instance. But, the Court also rejected NAS's opposite argument that Title VII's "person claiming to be aggrieved," language refers only to the employee who is engaged in the protected activity. As such, the Court settled on a middle-ground approach and adopted the "zone of interests" test that has been applied to determine whether a person "adversely affected or aggrieved," has Article III standing to sue under the Administrative Procedure Act. This test states that a plaintiff may not sue unless he/she "falls within the zone of interests sought to be protected by the statutory provision whose violations forms the legal basis for his complaint." The Court described this test as prohibiting Article III standing "if the plaintiff's interests are so marginally related to or inconsistent with the purposes implicit in the statute that it cannot reasonably be assumed that Congress intended to permit the suit."

Applying this test to Thompson, the Court had little trouble concluding that Thompson fell within the "zone of interests" protected by Title VII. Specifically, Thompson was an employee of NAS and Title VII is meant to protect employees from employer's unlawful actions. The Court also noted that Thompson was not "an accidental victim of retaliation - collateral damage, so to speak, of the employer's unlawful act. To the contary, injuring him was the employer's intended means of harming Regalado. Hurting him was the unlawful act by which the employer punished her." As such, the Court found that Thompson was "well within the zone of interests sought to be protected by Title VII," and permitted his claim to proceed.

You can read the full version of the Supreme Court's opinion here: http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/10pdf/09-291.pdf