In one of several employment-law decisions expected to be handed down this term, the United States Supreme Court on Monday issued its decision in Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP, 562 U.S. ___ (2011), upholding the right of third parties to bring retaliation claims under Title VII without actually engaging in protected activity. In a unanimous decision authored by Justice Scalia (Justice Kagan did not participate in the case), the Court held that it is unlawful for an employer to harm one employee in an effort to retaliate against another employee who engages in protected activity.

The plaintiff Eric Thompson and his fiancée Miriam Regalado both worked at the defendant, North American Stainless (NAS). Three weeks after NAS learned that Regalado had filed a sex discrimination complaint against it at the EEOC, it fired Thompson (ostensibly because of poor performance). Thompson, in turn, filed an action against NAS for retaliation. The trial court dismissed Thompson’s complaint on the ground that he had not engaged in any protected activity. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals eventually upheld the dismissal. Thompson then appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court was faced with two questions. First, did Thompson’s firing constitute unlawful retaliation? Second, if it did, did he have a cause of action under Title VII? The Court answered both questions in the affirmative.

In answering the first question, the Court looked at the anti-retaliation provision of Title VII and concluded that it “prohibits any employer action that well might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.” The Court found “it obvious that a reasonable worker might be dissuaded from engaging in protected activity [e.g., pursuing a sex discrimination charge] if she knew that her fiance would be fired.” The Court acknowledged the company’s argument that allowing third party retaliation claims would lead to difficult “line-drawing problems concerning the types of relationships entitled to protection.” Must there be a spousal (or near-spousal) relationship, or does protection extend to those in a dating relationship, friends, or even coworkers? But the Court declined to “identify a fixed class of relationships for which third-party reprisals are unlawful.” It wrote, “Given the broad statutory text and the variety of workplace contexts in which retaliation may occur, Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision is simply not reducible to a comprehensive set of clear rules.” Accordingly, each case must be decided on its own set of facts. Under the facts presented, the Court concluded that Thompson’s firing constituted unlawful retaliation.

In deciding the second question – whether Thompson could sue NAS for retaliation under Title VII – the Court adopted a “zone of interests” standard. Under this standard, “a plaintiff may not sue unless he falls within the zone of interests sought to be protected by the statutory provision whose violation forms the legal basis for his complaint.” The Court concluded that Thompson fell with the zone of interests protected by Title VII. He was employed by NAS, and was, therefore, protected under Title VII from the company’s unlawful actions. Hurting him was the unlawful act by which NAS punished his fiancée for filing her sex discrimination charge. The Court, therefore, concluded that Thompson had standing to sue NAS.

In some respects, Thompson represents another arrow in a plaintiff’s quiver to be aimed at his or her employer under the right circumstances, But, as Justice Ginsburg pointed out in her concurring opinion (in which Justice Breyer joined), the EEOC already has long held that Title VII “prohibits retaliation against someone so closely related to or associated with the person exercising his or her statutory rights that it would discourage or prevent the person from pursuing those rights.” According to the EEOC Compliance Manual, “such retaliation can be challenged by both the individual who engaged in the protected activity and the relative, where both are employees.”

So, while Thompson will undoubtedly spark discussion within the employment-law bar, it doesn’t really break new ground. Nevertheless, employers must remain vigilant in ensuring that terminations and other disciplinary actions must be carried out for legitimate business reasons and not for some other unlawful purpose.

This article originally appeared in Stephen B. Reed’s site, The Management-Side Lawyer.

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