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January 24, 2011

U.S. Supreme Court Extends Title VII Protection Against Retaliation By Association

On January 24, 2011, the United States Supreme Court held in Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP, No. 09-291, 561 U.S. __ (2011), that a male employee who claimed he was fired because his fiancée filed a sex discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) against their mutual employer, may pursue a retaliation claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Specifically, the Court concluded that the male employee was a “person aggrieved” within the meaning of Title VII and, therefore, had standing to sue.

Title VII and the Meaning of “Person Aggrieved”

Title VII prohibits an employer from discriminating against any employee on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin with respect to compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, and discriminatory practices that deprive any individual of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect his or her status as an employee.  Title VII also prohibits retaliation against any employee who has brought a charge of discrimination.  The statute permits any “person claiming to be aggrieved” by an alleged employment practice to file a civil action. 

In determining whether the male employee in Thompson was a “person aggrieved” within the meaning of the statute, the Court relied on its prior decision in Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53 (2006), which held that the anti-retaliation provision, unlike the anti-discrimination provision, extends beyond employer acts that affect terms and conditions of employment to also cover any employer action that might dissuade a reasonable employee from making or supporting a discrimination charge.  Based on this interpretation, the Court explained that a reasonable employee might be dissuaded from engaging in protected activity if the employee knew that his or her fiancée would be fired.  The Court therefore held that the male employee was a “person aggrieved” within the meaning of Title VII.

Standing to Sue and the “Zone of Interests” Test

The Court’s next inquiry was whether the male employee had standing to bring a Title VII civil action against the employer.  The Court looked to the common usage of the term “person aggrieved” to adopt a “zone of interests” test for standing.  Under this test, a person who is adversely affected within the meaning of a relevant statute may not sue unless he or she falls within the “zone of interests” sought to be protected by the statute. 

According to the Court, Title VII’s term “aggrieved” incorporates the zone of interest test, thus enabling suit by any plaintiff with an interest arguably sought to be protected by Title VII.  As the plaintiff in Thompson was an employee and Title VII’s purpose is to protect employees from their employers’ unlawful actions, the plaintiff fell within the “zone of interests” protected by Title VII and, therefore, had standing to sue.

Implications of Thompson

In its decision, the Court acknowledged the legitimate concern that its holding may expose employers to the risk of suit every time an employee who has some connection to a different employee who filed a charge of discrimination is terminated.  However, the Court declined to fix a bright line rule as to who may bring Title VII third-party retaliation claims.

In light of this decision, any reprisal against family members and close associates of employees who have filed charges of discrimination is likely prohibited.

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If you should have any questions regarding the Thompson case and its implications or any other related issues, please contact us.