Supreme Court Expands Title VII with "Third Party" Retaliation

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Employment Law Alert


On Monday, January 24, 2011, the United States Supreme Court published its opinion in the case of Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP, No. 09-291, U.S. Supreme Court (Jan. 24, 2011) (available at, holding that an employee may sue under Title VII alleging he was terminated in retaliation for the EEOC Charge of Discrimination filed by his fiancée. This is an expansion of Title VII liability that should be viewed as a significant development.

Background Facts

Plaintiff, Eric Thompson and his fiancée, Mariam Regalado were both employed by the Defendant, North American Stainless. Three weeks after Ms. Regalado filed an EEOC Charge alleging harassment and discrimination, Mr. Thompson was terminated from his employment. He filed his own separate EEOC Charge alleging that his termination was in retaliation for the charge filed by his fiancée.

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky granted the employer's motion for summary judgment and dismissed the case. Upon appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit first reversed the dismissal of the case, but then reversed itself, affirming the dismissal.

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the further appeal to address two questions. First, did the alleged conduct violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and second, if it did, did Mr. Thompson have standing to sue where he, himself, had not been the initial victim of discrimination?

Legal Analysis of the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court's analysis was largely guided by the 2006 case, Burlington N. & S. F. R. Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53 (2006), also addressing retaliation under Title VII. In the White case, the Supreme Court had articulated test for retaliation that "prohibits any employer action that might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination." Id. at 68. As in White, the Supreme Court in Thompson reaffirmed that Title VII and its anti-retaliation provisions are to be given broad interpretation. In the White case, however, the same employee alleged discrimination as later alleged retaliation.

The Supreme Court in Thompson held that "it [is] obvious that a reasonable worker might be dissuaded from engagement and protected activity if she knew that her fiancée would be fired." The Court found no legal basis to distinguish between retaliation against a third party and retaliation against the initial employee. At the same time, the Court declined to identify a fixed class of relationships for which third party reprisals are unlawful. The Court offered that retaliation against a close family member would likely be protected, but that further relations, friends, or office acquaintances might not.

Having found that the alleged conduct would violate Title VII, the Supreme Court also found that Mr. Thompson had constitutional standing to bring suit on his own behalf. The Court applied a "zone of interests" tests, finding that Plaintiff Thompson fell within the zone of interests protected by Title VII. He was an employee of the Defendant, and the purpose of Title VII is to protect employees from their employers' unlawful actions. Accepting the facts alleged, Thompson was not an accidental victim of retaliation.

The Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals and remanded the case back to the District Court.

Employer Impact

Employers must be careful to properly address claims of discrimination before taking any actions that could possibly be deemed retaliatory. As the Supreme Court specifically notes, there is no bright line of who can allege retaliation. All allegations of discrimination or harassment must be taken extremely seriously.

It is too early to speculate whether this new Thompson case will cause an increase in the number of retaliation claims, but recently released EEOC data indicates a rising trend already. Of over 92,000 EEOC Charges filed in fiscal year 2010, an all time high, thirty six (36%) percent alleged retaliation, more than any other protected class.

Employers should also note that since June 2010, the EEOC has filed twenty one (21) discrimination lawsuits in North and South Carolina, a significant uptick in litigation over years past. Of such EEOC lawsuits, ten (10) specifically alleged retaliation.

Additional Information

We at McNair Law Firm have a number of highly experienced attorneys who focus on aspects of employment and labor law. If you have any questions, please contact the McNair attorney with whom you work or any of the attorneys included in our Labor & Employment Practice Group on our website.

This Supreme Court Alert provides an overview of certain aspects of a specific court decision. It is not intended to be, and should not be construed as, legal advice for any particular fact situation.


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