“Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation.  The foundation of such a method is love.”

–Martin Luther King, Jr.

On January 24, 2011, the United States Supreme Court issued its highly-anticipated decision in Thompson v. North American Stainless, L.P. If you were one of the many employers, human resource managers, or employment lawyers on pins and needles awaiting this ruling, please don’t shoot the messenger.

Eric Thompson was fired from his job at North American Stainless three weeks after the company received notice that his fiancé and co-worker, Miriam Regalado, filed a sex discrimination charge against their employer with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).  Thompson then filed suit against North American Stainless, alleging it had discharged him in order to retaliate against Regalado for filing her EEOC charge.

After a 3- Judge panel initially ruled in his favor, the full bench on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals (covering Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee) then found that Thompson could not state a claim because he had not engaged in any protected activity, on either his own behalf or his fiancé’s.  On appeal, the Supreme Court reversed this decision in a unanimous ruling.  Following Dr. King’s lead, the “method” by which the Court in this case “rejects . . . retaliation” was to substantially broaden the reach of Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision.

Are you feeling the love, yet?

Well, if your employees are feeling it, they may very well be considered potential “aggrieved” employees who fall within the “zone of interests” protected by Title VII.  Citing a very employee-friendly retaliation decision from about 5 years ago, Burlington Northern, The Court reiterated that the anti-retaliation provision in the Civil Rights Act prohibits employers from acting in a way that may dissuade a reasonable employee from filing a discrimination charge.  According to the Court, firing an employee’s fiancé is such an action.

Spreading the love further, the Court also indicated that, not only does the employee engaging in protected activity have a retaliation claim, so does her loved one.  As the Court sees it, the fiancé is not “an accidental victim,” rather, he is the means by which the employer intentionally harms the complaining employee.

So, who falls within this “zone of interests”?  Only time will tell.  While the Court rejected the argument that a bright-line rule in favor of one relationship or another was appropriate and pointed out that the specific circumstances in each case need to be considered, it still felt sure enough to say that “a close family member” will nearly always meet this standard.  But what about best friends?  A girlfriend or a boyfriend?  A sister that you don’t like and aren’t that “close” to, despite the familial relationship?  This is where the decision proves most problematic.  Is love the method that should be used to fight retaliation in the courts?

This opinion is undoubtedly a difficult decision to swallow for employers, since it vastly expands the group of employees who can actually file Title VII retaliation claims with some teeth.

In other words, love bites.

Vanessa Towarnicky's primary focus is in the area of labor and employment law. She has been involved in representing clients in various employment cases, including sexual harassment; deliberate intent; age, race, and disability discrimination; wrongful discharge; and various other employment-related torts. She is admitted to various state and federal courts as well as the Third Circuit Court of Appeals and Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.
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