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Monday, January 24, 2011

Supreme Court Issues Decision Protecting Employees From Retaliation

The Supreme Court issued a decision today in the case of Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP. The Court held that an employee who was fired after his fiancé filed a sex discrimination charge with the EEOC could bring a claim under Title VII, the section of the Civil Rights Act that protects against workplace discrimination. It also prohibits employers from taking action that might dissuade a reasonable worker from complaining about workplace discrimination. The employer in the case argued that only the employee who brought the discrimination complaint could sue – not her fiancé.

In an opinion written by Justice Scalia, the Court rejected this argument and noted, “We think it obvious that a reasonable worker might be dissuaded from engaging in protected activity if she knew that her fiancé would be fired.” In other words, the purpose of Title VII would be undermined if an employer could simply fire a third party to punish an employee who speaks up about illegal discrimination.

The Court also had to address whether a third party like the plaintiff in this case had standing to challenge the employer’s action. The Court determined that an employee constitutes a “person aggrieved” and is eligible to bring a Title VII challenge when that person “falls within the ‘zone of interests’ sought to be protected by the statutory provision.” Because Title VII was meant to protect employees from their employers’ unlawful actions, Thompson was protected by the statute. The Court declined to say how far this zone of protection extends, but did not have difficulty extending it to the fiancé of the person who filed a discrimination complaint.

Justice Kagan took no part in the Court’s decision, presumably because she participated in drafting the Solicitor General’s certiorari stage brief, which was filed in May 2010, just after she stepped down as Solicitor General.

AFJ has more analysis of this and other cases before the Supreme Court on our website, “The Corporate Court’s 2010-11 Docket.”

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