The US Supreme Court on Monday rejected a narrow reading of a federal antidiscrimination law, ruling instead that a company can be sued for trying to retaliate against a worker by firing her fiancé.
In a unanimous decision, the high court ruled that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits employers from attempting to punish an employee who has accused the company of discrimination by taking action against the employee’s future husband.
The court concluded that in such a case the future husband has the legal authority to sue the employer for an illegal act of workplace retaliation.
In February 2003, Ms. Regalado filed a sex discrimination complaint against the Kentucky-based stainless steel plant with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Three weeks later, the company fired Mr. Thompson.
Thompson responded by filing his own EEOC complaint against the company, and later sued North American Steel for firing him as a way to retaliate against Regalado for her original discrimination complaint.
The company argued in court that Title VII does not allow third party retaliation claims. The company said the law only protects individuals from retaliation who have themselves filed a claim based on racial, ethnic, religious, or gender discrimination.
Since Thompson had not filed such a claim, Title VII’s antiretaliation provision offered him no protection, the company’s lawyers said.
A federal judge agreed and threw Thompson’s case out. On appeal, the full Sixth US Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal.
In reversing that ruling on Monday, the high court said the antiretaliation provision of Title VII is not limited solely to those who are covered by the statute’s antidiscrimination protections. Rather, the court said, the statute covers any employee with an interest “arguably [sought] to be protected by the statute.”
Writing for the court, Justice Antonin Scalia said Thompson was within that group.
“Thompson was an employee of NAS, and the purpose of Title VII is to protect employees from their employers’ unlawful actions,” Justice Scalia wrote.
“Accepting the facts as alleged, Thompson is not an accidental victim of the retaliation,” he said. “To the contrary, injuring him was the employer’s intended means of harming Regalado. Hurting him was the unlawful act by which the employer punished her.”
Scalia added, “In those circumstances, we think Thompson well within the zone of interests sought to be protected by Title VII.”
In reaching their decision, the justices declined to spell out precisely which relationships would render unlawful an employer’s retaliation against a third party. The court left unanswered, for example, whether the firing of a best friend would qualify.
“We expect that firing a close family member will almost always meet the … standard,” Scalia said. “Inflicting a milder reprisal on a mere acquaintance will almost never do so,” he added. “But beyond that we are reluctant to generalize.”
The case is Thompson v. North American Stainless (09-291). The vote was 8-0. Justice Elena Kagan took no part in the case because it was filed while she was working as solicitor general.