RETALIATORY DISCHARGE: U.S. Supreme Court expands scope of Title VII’s retaliation provisions
On January 24, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed a decision by the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (Kentucky’s federal appellate court) and expanded the class of individuals who can claim they were subject to retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In its unanimous opinion (Justice Elena Kagan recused herself), the Court found that a third party who enjoys a significant connection with an employee who has made a complaint or otherwise engaged in protected activity may assert a claim that he was retaliated against by their mutual employer in violation of Title VII.
Eric Thompson and his fiancée were employed by North American Stainless (NAS) in Carroll County. Thompson’s fiancée filed a sex discrimination charge against NAS with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Three weeks later, Thompson was fired. He then filed a charge with the EEOC alleging he had been terminated as retaliation against his fiancée for filing her charge with the EEOC. Ultimately, he filed a lawsuit against NAS claiming his termination violated Title VII’s antiretaliation provision.
The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky granted pretrial dismissal in favor of NAS, holding that Title VII doesn’t allow retaliation claims by third parties. Although the Sixth Circuit initially reversed the district court, a full panel of the appellate court judges reconsidered the case and, in a 10-6 vote, held that Title VII doesn’t protect employees who merely enjoy a relationship with an employee who files a complaint under the Act. The Sixth Circuit held that Title VII’s antiretaliation provision covers only employees who engage in acts protected by the law. The Supreme Court disagreed.
Supreme Court’s decision
The Court considered two issues and answered both in the affirmative. First, given the facts alleged, did NAS’ firing of Thompson constitute unlawful retaliation? Second, if it did, does Title VII grant him a cause of action?
The antiretaliation provision of Title VII prohibits an employer from discriminating against any employee because he engaged in protected conduct, and it doesn’t limit the acts that are prohibited. The Supreme Court noted that Title VII’s antiretaliation provision prohibits any employment action that could dissuade a reasonable worker from making or testifying about or otherwise supporting another person’s charge of discrimination. Clearly, the Court opined, a reasonable person would be discouraged from filing a charge of discrimination if she knew a loved one would be terminated from employment as a result.
The Court found the more difficult question to be whether Thompson could sue NAS for its alleged violation of Title VII. After much analysis of the statute and precedent, the Court found that Title VII’s protection doesn’t extend to everyone who has a relationship with a complaining employee. To be entitled to file a retaliation lawsuit under Title VII, a person must fall within the “zone of interests” the statute seeks to protect. The Court declined to define specific parameters for how far the “zone of interests” extends.
The Court held that Title VII confers a right to sue on anyone the law would have sought to protect. Thompson enjoyed a sufficient connection to the complaining employee (his fiancée) to make it clear that his termination would arguably harm her. The Court found there was no question that he fell within the zone of interest that allowed him to allege his termination was a retaliatory act aimed at punishing his fiancée for filing an EEOC charge. Given their relationship, NAS should have realized that terminating Thompson would have a negative impact on his fiancée. Therefore, he successfully created an issue of fact for a jury to decide whether that was the company’s true reason for deciding to terminate him.
Unfortunately, the Court provided little guidance regarding the circumstances in which a terminated employee will be able to sue based on the theory that the employer fired him to retaliate against a different employee. While close family members are likely to be able to sue in that situation, what about more remote relatives, friends, or coworkers? The Court declined to provide any firm guidelines. You should clearly consider the risks before terminating an employee who has a close relationship with someone who has engaged in protected activity.
Although this case was decided under Title VII, the same rationale could be applied in retaliation cases under other federal employment laws. Both the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act have language similar to Title VII and would likely be interpreted the same way. On the other hand, the Family and Medical Leave Act likely wouldn’t because it uses different terminology.
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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.