On January 24, 2011, the Supreme Court of the United States unanimously extended Title VII’s protections to an individual who was terminated after his fiancee filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Office.
The facts of the case are relatively straight forward. Until 2003, both petitioner Eric Thompson and his fiancee, Miriam Regalado, were employees of respondent North American Stainless (NAS). In February 2003, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) notified NAS that Regalado had filed a charge alleging discrimination. Three weeks later, NAS fired Thompson. Thompson complained that he had been fired in retaliation for his fiancee’s discrimination charge.
The District Court granted summary judgment to NAS, concluding that Title VII “does not permit third party retaliation claims.” 435 F. Supp. 2d 633, 639 (ED Ky. 2006). After a panel of the Sixth Circuit reversed the District Court, the Sixth Circuit granted rehearing en banc and affirmed the District Court’s opinion. 567 F.3d 804 (2009). The court reasoned that because Thompson did not “engag[e] in any statutorily protected activity, either on his own behalf or on behalf of Miriam Regalado . . . [he] is not included in the class of persons for whom Congress created a retaliation cause of action.” Id., at 807-808.
In ruling, the Supreme Court addressed the main concern with affording a fiancee protection under Title VII. NAS argued that allowing a fiancee to sue would open the floodgates to retaliation lawsuits from everyone with any connection to a complaining employee. However, the Court stated that “we do not think [this concern] justifies a categorical rule that third-party reprisals do not violate Title VII.” The Court then “decline[d] to identify a fixed class of relationships for which third-party reprisals are unlawful.” Instead, the Court stated that it will “depend on the particular circumstances.” The Court elaborated that “firing a close family member will almost always meet the standard, and inflicting a milder reprisal on a mere acquaintance will almost never do so.” Beyond that the Court declined to comment.
Once the Court held that certain aggrieved third parties had standing to bring a claim, it determined that Thompson clearly falls under the category of people who can sue for retaliation. The Court stated, “Thompson is not an accidental victim of the retaliation – collateral damage, so to speak, of the employer’s unlawful act.” “To the contrary, injuring him was the employer’s intended means of harming Regalado. Hurting him was the unlawful act by which the the employer punished her. In these circumstances, we think Thompson well within the zone of interests sought to be protected by Title VII. He is a person aggrieved with standing to sue.”
Based on this ruling, it is clear that courts will carefully consider the factual circumstances involved in each case. If a third party can factually assert that their adverse employment decision falls within the “zone of interests” sought to be protected by Title VII, then Employers will have difficulty obtaining summary judgment.