Discharging Employees Who Are Related-New Case-US Supreme Court

On January 24, 2011, in a unanimous decision, the US Supreme Court held that a third-party has standing to file suit for retaliation, after he and his fiancé were fired by the same employer.  The Court held that an “aggrieved” person under Title VII included the fiancé, since he had an interest that was intended to be protected by Title VII.  Therefore, Title VII granted the plaintiff a cause of action.

Plaintiff Eric Thompson and his fiancé, Miriam Regalado, were employees of defendant North American Stainless (“NAS”) until February 2003.  That month, Regalado filed a sex discrimination claim against NAS with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”).  Only three weeks later, Thompson was fired by NAS.  Thompson sued NAS in the Eastern District of Kentucky for a Title VII claim of retaliation.  His claim that NAS fired him in retaliation for his fiancé’s complaint with the EEOC was rejected by the District Court.  The District Court held that Title VII “does not permit third party retaliation claims.”  The District Court ruling was affirmed by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.  The appeals court held that plaintiff did not “engage in any statutorily protected activity, either on his own behalf or on behalf of Miriam Regalado,” nor is he “included in the class of persons for whom Congress created a retaliation cause of action.”

The Supreme Court reversed and held that Title VII prohibits any “employer action that well might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a discrimination charge.”  The Court concluded that “a reasonable worker obviously might be dissuaded from engaging in protected activity if she knew that her fiancée would be fired.”  Further, the Court refused to establish a “fixed class” of relationships for which retaliation will be considered unlawful.  

This case broadens the scope of potential retaliation claims under Title VII.  California employers should be mindful of discharging employees with family or personal relationships where one of the employees has engaged in a protected activity.

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