Posted 02-09-2011

On January 24, 2011, a unanimous United States Supreme Court ruled that a man who was fired after his fiancée had filed a sex discrimination case against their mutual employer could sue the employer for illegal retaliation.

Eric Thompson and his fiancée (now wife), Miriam Regalado, both worked for North American Stainless. Three weeks after Miriam filed a sex discrimination charge against the company, Eric was fired. Eric fired back with a lawsuit claiming that North American Stainless had fired him in order to retaliate against Miriam for her sex discrimination complaint. The lower federal courts dismissed Eric’s case, but the Supreme Court has reinstated it and sent it back for a trial on the merits.

In his opinion for the Court, Justice Scalia said that they had “no difficulty concluding” that third-party retaliation is illegal, given the Court’s previous decisions that retaliation covers a broad range of employer misconduct. “We think it obvious,” he explained, “that a reasonable worker might be dissuaded from engaging in protected activity if she knew that her fiancé would be fired.” The Court refused to limit its holding to engaged couples or “a fixed class of relationships”, but instead noted that “firing a close family member will almost always” meet the standard, but “inflicting a milder reprisal against a mere acquaintance will almost never do so”.

The Court went on to find that Eric was within the zone of interests protected by federal anti-discrimination law, and therefore had standing to bring his suit, reasoning that Eric was “not an accidental victim of the retaliation-collateral damage, so to speak, of the employer’s unlawful act. To the contrary, injuring him was the employer’s intended means of harming [Miriam].” Thompson v. North American Stainless.

What this means to you:

If you’re a regular eNews reader, you know that the Supreme Court has issued a series of unanimous or nearly unanimous opinions over the past five years in favor of robust anti-retaliation protections. While third-party retaliation claims had been permitted under some state statutes, the Thompson opinion now makes third-party retaliation claims the law of the land.

Retaliation claims are often the fault of employers, who make the mistake of transforming a weak discrimination or wrongful discharge claim into a strong retaliation claim by the way they treat an employee who complains about discrimination, harassment, or other misconduct. Retaliation has been the #1 claim at the EEOC for the past two years, which makes it more important than ever that managers, Human Resources, and Legal work together to thoroughly and impartially evaluate the situation before taking any disciplinary action, to ensure that there is no retaliatory motivation.

Information here is correct at the time it is posted. Case decisions cited here may be reversed. Please do not rely on this information without consulting an attorney first.