In a unanimous decision, the United States Supreme Court recently ruled that an employee who was terminated shortly after his fiancé filed a charge of discrimination against their mutual employer could pursue his own cause of action for retaliation. Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP, 2011 WL 197638 (Jan. 24, 2011). In doing so, the Court continued to apply and expand upon the broad interpretation of Title VII's anti-retaliation provisions that it adopted in Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Rail Company v. White, 548 U.S. 53 (2006).
In Thompson, Miriam Regalado filed a sex discrimination charge against her employer, North American Stainless ("NAS"), with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Three weeks later, NAS fired Thompson, Regaldo's fiancé. Thompson then filed his own charge with the EEOC, alleging that NAS fired him in order to retaliate against Regalado for having filed her EEOC charge. The lower courts dismissed Thompson's claims, concluding that he was not permitted to sue NAS for retaliation because he had not engaged in any protected activity under Title VII. The Supreme Court, however, reversed those decisions and ruled that Thompson could pursue his claim of retaliation.
First, citing Burlington Northern's conclusion that Title VII’s anti-retaliation provisions must be construed to prohibit conduct that "well might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination," the Thompson Court opined that it was "obvious" that a reasonable worker would be dissuaded from engaging in protected activity if she knew that her fiancé would be fired.
Second, the Court concluded that Thompson had standing to assert a cause of action for retaliation under Title VII. In doing so, the Court rejected dicta in its previous decisions and held that an individual may sue if he falls within the "zone of interests" sought to be protected by Title VII. Here, Thompson satisfied that test because Title VII is intended to protect employees from unlawful actions by their employers. Thompson was an employee of NAS, and if Thompson’s allegations are true, then Thompson was not an accidental victim of the unlawful act, but was the intended target.
The Thompson decision begs the question as to what relationship between the individual who engaged in protected activity and the third party bringing the retaliation claim will be sufficient to satisfy the Burlington Northern standard. In this regard, the Court provided little guidance, explaining that the firing of a close family member will almost always satisfy the standard, whereas a milder reprisal against a mere acquaintance will almost never do so. Thus, the full impact of Thompson will not be realized until the lower courts begin this line-drawing exercise.
In the meantime, employers must not only continue to be conscious not retaliate or give the appearance of retaliation against a complaining employee, but now should apply the same standards to their treatment of those who are known to be close to that employee.