In recent years, the U.S. Supreme Court has broadly read anti-retaliation provisions of federal labor laws, rejecting technical challenges based on interpretations of such statutes. On Monday, the Court unanimously continued this trend, allowing a Title VII retaliation suit by the fiancée of an employee who filed an EEOC Charge against their common employer.
In Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP, the plaintiff's fiancée filed an EEOC Charge alleging sex discrimination. Three weeks later, the company terminated the plaintiff. He filed his own EEOC Charge, alleging that he was terminated in an attempt by the employer to retaliate against his fiancée. The employer contended that under Title VII's anti-retaliation provision, the plaintiff had no standing to sue because he had not engaged in any protected activity under Title VII.
The Supreme Court disagreed, reversing the contrary decision of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, and remanding the matter for possible trial. In its decision, the Court noted Congress' intent to apply Title VII's anti-retaliation provisions to a wide range of employer conduct. Clearly, the plaintiff's fiancée was entitled to file her own retaliation complaint based on the termination. The Supreme Court refused to draw a line as to whether termination or negative action against any co-worker with whom the complaining employee has a relationship would constitute retaliation under Title VII. Each case must be individually reviewed.
In terms of the fiancée's independent right to file a Charge, the Court concluded that any aggrieved employee who falls within a "zone of interests" protected under Title VII may file a retaliation complaint. A fiancée of a complaining party is closely related enough to provide independent protection under the statute.
This reasoning may not apply to any co-worker who is a friend of the complaining party. This decision will surely trigger additional litigation by tangentially related employees who claim that some relationship with a co-worker who complained about discrimination motivated the employer to retaliate against them. Employers seeking to discipline or terminate employees known to have a personal connection to a complaining party should make certain they can demonstrate legitimate business reasons unrelated to the Charge before taking such action.