On January 24, 2011, the United States Supreme Court held that a third-party who has personally made no complaint of discrimination has standing in certain circumstances to sue his employer for retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended. Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP, 562 U.S. _____ (2011). The employee plaintiff there was fired three weeks after his fiancée filed a charge of sex discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against their common employer. Upon termination, the employee filed his own EEOC charge alleging retaliation and subsequently brought suit. The District Court granted summary judgment for the employer, which the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld, because it determined the employee was not in the class of persons who may state a cause of action for retaliation under Title VII.
The Supreme Court reversed, first concluding that, assuming the facts alleged by the employee were true, the employee’s dismissal violated Title VII due to the breadth of the statute’s anti-retaliation provision. The more difficult issue for the Court was whether the employee had standing to sue under Title VII which provides that “a civil action may be brought . . . by the person claiming to be aggrieved.” The Court found that this language incorporates the “zone of interests” test, meaning the employee must fall within the zone of interests sought to be protected by Title VII. In other words, suit can be brought by any plaintiff with an interest “arguably [sought] to be protected by the statutes.” The Court held that the employee indeed fell within the zone of interests protected by Title VII because he was an employee of the employer, “and the purpose of Title VII is to protect employees from their employers’ unlawful actions.” The Court pointed out that the employee’s termination was not merely “collateral damage” from his fiancée filing an EEOC charge. Rather, the Court found that the employer punished her by hurting him. This, the Court stated, placed the employee “well within the zone of interests sought to be protected by Title VII” and he therefore had standing to sue.
It remains to be seen how close an employee’s relationship must be to another employee who has complained of discrimination for the first employee to fall within the other employee’s zone of interests. The Supreme Court in dicta indicated that an immediate family member would be, but not a mere acquaintance, but refused to articulate a bright line test to determine who might be protected and who is not. As a result, employers will need to assess this potential on a case-by-case basis.
If you have employment-related questions, please contact Eric Holshouser.