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U.S. Supreme Court Broadens Retaliation Claims

On January 24, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court held unanimously that an employee who was allegedly fired in retaliation for his fiancae filing a sex discrimination charge could sue his employer under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In Thompson v. North American Stainless LP, the plaintiff and his fiancae both worked for the same employer. Three weeks after the EEOC notified the employer that Thompson's fiancae had filed a sex discrimination charge against it, the employer fired Thompson. Thompson then filed his own EEOC charge and later sued the employer, alleging retaliation for his fiancae's discrimination charge.

In an 8-0 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Thompson. The Court observed that Title VII's anti-retaliation provision is broader than its anti-discrimination provisions. In an earlier case, the Court found that Title VII prohibits employers from taking any action that "might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination." Applying this standard to Thompson's case, the Court found it "obvious that a reasonable worker might be dissuaded from engaging in protected activity if she knew that her fiancae would be fired."

The Court acknowledged that its ruling could expose employers to retaliation claims any time that they fire an employee who has some connection to another employee who complained of discrimination. The Court provided virtually no guidance on what types of relationships would potentially qualify for a third-party retaliation claim. The Court observed that firing a close family member would "almost always" give rise to a claim, whereas firing "mere acquaintances" might not, but beyond this, the Court was "reluctant to generalize".

After Thompson, employers should be aware that retaliation charges may now be filed, not only by an employee who complains of discrimination, but also by anyone who has some significant relationship with the complaining employee. In 2010, more retaliation charges were filed with the EEOC than any other type of charge. After Thompson, we can expect even more such claims. The courts will be tasked with determining whether the relationship between two individuals are sufficiently close to warrant a retaliation claim, and the risk of inconsistent outcomes is high. Thus, employers are advised to exercise caution when terminating employees who have relationships with other employees who have engaged in protected activities under Title VII.

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