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Thompson v. North American Stainless
What’s at stake?
Protecting employees who suffer retaliation because family members assert their own workplace rights.
Whether workplace anti-discrimination laws prohibit an employer from firing an employee’s family member in retaliation for the employee’s filing of a discrimination claim.
January 24, 2011
8-0 in favor of Thompson. Justice Scalia delivered the opinion; Justice Ginsburg filed a concurring opinion; Justice Kagan recused.
What the court held:
In a decision that protects employees’ workplace rights, the Court held that third parties can be protected by Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision.
Miriam Regalado filed a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging that her supervisors at North American Stainless discriminated against her based on her gender. Three weeks after learning about her claim, Stainless Steel fired her fiancé. He claimed that this violated Title VII, the law that prohibits workplace discrimination and prevents employers from taking action that might dissuade a reasonable worker from complaining about workplace discrimination. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held that even if Stainless fired Thompson because of his fiancé’s complaint, this would not run afoul of Title VII.
In an opinion written by Justice Scalia, the Court reversed the Sixth Circuit 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.
- PBS Newshour: Supreme Court Watch: Marcia Coyle on Workplace Discrimination Case
- WTOP.com: Court to decide limits on retaliation ban
- Brief for Petitioner Eric L. Thompson
- Brief for Respondent North American Stainless, LP
- Reply Brief for Petitioner Eric L. Thompson
- Brief for the National Women's Law Center in Support of Petitioner
- Brief for the United States of America in Support of Petitioner
- Brief for the National Employment Lawyers Association, American Association for Justice, AARP, the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, Inc., Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the Legal Aid Society of San Francisco-Employment Law Center in Support of Petitioner
- Brief for the Equal Employment Advisory Council, National Association of Manufacturers and the National Federation of Independent Business Small Business Legal Center in Support of Respondent
- Brief for the United States Chamber of Commerce in Support of Respondent