Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it illegal for an employer to retaliate against an employee because he or she opposed, complained about, or participated in an investigation of discrimination. Last week, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals joined three other federal appellate circuits in concluding that Title VII’s anti-retaliation provisions do not extend to third parties who are associated with a protected class member, but who themselves did not have anything to do with the complaint or investigation.
In Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP, the plaintiff was the fiancé of a co-worker who filed an EEOC charge alleging sex discrimination. He claimed that his termination three weeks later for poor performance was in fact retaliation by the employer aimed at his fiancé. The EEOC intervened on the plaintiff’s behalf, asking the court to recognize coverage of his claim under Title VII. In previous cases, the Third, Fifth and Eighth Circuits held that Title VII’s anti-relation provisions do not apply to such associates of protected individuals.
The Sixth Circuit agreed, affirming dismissal of the claim. The court relied upon the plain language of the statute to conclude that the plaintiff here never engaged in the protected activity listed in the retaliation portion of Title VII. While the Sixth Circuit recognized the policy reasons behind the EEOC’s position, it could not overcome the plain language meaning of the statute. In other words, the court said that it was up to Congress to change Title VII if it decided that the anti-retaliation provisions need to be expanded.
This decision is especially notable because it is the first appellate court to consider this question after the Supreme Court’s Crawford decision earlier this year. In that case, the Supreme Court concluded that Title VII’s anti-retaliation provisions cover a third party witness who provided information in the course of an employer’s internal discrimination investigation. The Sixth Circuit distinguished Crawford, noting that in that case, the employee’s participation in the investigation was found to be “opposition” under Title VII.
The Sixth Circuit’s decision was 2-1, and may result in a rehearing before the entire Circuit, or an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Employees may also be able to claim that this practice constitutes wrongful discharge under state law. For the time being, however, employees who believe they were fired as a result of a friend’s or relative’s behavior will not be able to use the EEOC process to seek redress.