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Employer Retaliation: Sixth Circuit expands scope of protection from retaliation


Traditionally, courts have held that only employees who have complained about discrimination are protected under the antiretaliation provision of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII makes it illegal for an employer to discriminate against an employee because he opposed an unlawful employment practice. 

Despite the express language of Title VII protecting only individuals who oppose unlawful actions, the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which hears cases on appeal from Kentucky federal district courts, recently held that individuals "closely related" to the complaining person are entitled to protection against retaliation. 


Eric Thompson was employed as a metallurgical engineer for North American Stainless, LP, in Carroll County from 1997 through March 2003. While employed there, he became engaged to coworker Miriam Regalado. The fact that they were engaged was common knowledge at work. 

In September 2002, Regalado filed a sex discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which notified North American Stainless of the charge on February 13, 2003. On March 7, 2003, the company terminated Thompson, allegedly for performance reasons. 

Thompson filed a charge with the EEOC contending that his termination was in retaliation for his fiance filing a discrimination charge. The commission found reasonable cause to believe that North American violated Title VII by terminating Thompson. 

Thompson then filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky, claiming that the sole motivating factor in his termination was his relationship with Regalado. North American Stainless asked the court to dismiss his case, arguing that even assuming the allegations were true, he didn't state a claim for which he was entitled to protection under Title VII's antiretaliation provisions. The district court agreed, holding that a claim was available under Title VII only to persons who had engaged in protected activity, i.e., personally complained of discrimination. Thompson appealed. 

Sixth Circuit's decision 

The Sixth Circuit began its analysis by acknowledging that the express language of Title VII provides protection only to persons who were directly involved in protected activity. Nonetheless, the court determined that to give effect to the plain meaning of the statute would undermine its purpose. 

The Sixth Circuit noted that a court should go beyond the literal language of a statute if reliance on that language would defeat its intent. The court emphasized that Title VII's antiretaliation provision seeks to secure a nondiscriminatory workplace by preventing an employer from interfering with an employee's efforts to secure or advance enforcement of the statute's basic guarantees. 

The court determined that applying a literal reading of the antiretaliation provision ― to provide protection only to a complaining individual ― would defeat the plain purpose of Title VII. The court reasoned that failure to expand the scope of the antiretaliation protection to family members and friends would dissuade reasonable employees from attempting to remedy discrimination. 

The Sixth Circuit found support for its conclusion in the EEOC Compliance Manual. Agency guidelines such as those found in the manual aren't binding on the courts but are frequently given deference. The manual provides that a person claiming retaliation need not be the one who engaged in protected activity. Instead, the EEOC offered that the antiretaliation provision extends to "someone so closely related to or associated with the person exercising his or her statutory rights that it would discourage that person from pursuing those rights." 

The dissent 

In dissent, Judge Richard Allen Griffin argued that the majority had rewritten Title VII to conform to its notion of desirable public policy. He emphasized that when Congress enacted the statute, it created a new and limited claim for retaliation in the employment setting. It was within Congress' purview to mold the scope of the legislation, making the boundaries of coverage either limited or expansive in nature. 

Judge Griffin stated that the text of the antiretaliation provision was plain and unambiguous in its protection of a limited class of persons who were afforded the right to sue for retaliation. Congress clearly limited the scope of protection to only individuals who had engaged in protected activity by opposing unlawful actions. Accordingly, he concluded that Thompson wasn't among the class of persons protected under Title VII's antiretaliation provision and would have upheld the dismissal of his complaint.Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP, 2008 WL 834005 (6th Cir. (Ky.)). 

Bottom line 

As a matter of statutory construction, a court may deviate from the express language of a statute if it would be absurd to enforce the statute according to its terms. The majority in this case went to great lengths to show that the underlying purpose of Title VII would be thwarted if the class of persons defined by Congress wasn't expanded. However, the majority opinion didn't attempt to demonstrate that failure to enforce the clear and unambiguous language enacted by Congress would lead to an absurd result. 

In addition, the court left open an important question: What is the precise scope of individuals entitled to protection? Although "family members" might be readily definable, the court's conclusion that "friends" are entitled to protection may result in additional litigation before you receive clear guidance on the class of individuals entitled to protection.

If you have any questions or need help, please contact any member of the Greenebaum Doll & McDonald Labor and Employment Department.

Copyright 2008 M. Lee Smith Publishers LLC 
KENTUCKY EMPLOYMENT LAW LETTER does not attempt to offer solutions to individual problems but rather to provide information about current developments in Kentucky employment law.  Questions about individual problems should be addressed to the employment law attorney of your choice.

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