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Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP

Supreme Court Rules That Federal Discrimination Law Protects Family Members/Co-Workers From Retaliation

The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that an employer may not retaliate against a worker who is the fiancé or family member of a co-worker who has filed a discrimination complaint with a government agency.

Background


Fiancés Miriam Regalado and Eric Thompson both worked at North American Stainless L.P.'s manufacturing plant in Kentucky. Three weeks after Regalado filed a charge of gender discrimination with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the company fired Thompson — even though he had received a performance-based pay raise just three months before.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from retaliating against employees because they have filed discrimination claims. Thompson filed his own lawsuit alleging that he had been terminated because of Regalado's complaint. According to Thompson, his termination violated the law's intent to prevent and remedy bias. Two courts dismissed the case on the grounds that Title VII's anti-retaliation provisions were limited only to the victim who directly faced race, sex or ethnic bias themselves.

AARP, represented by attorneys with AARP Foundation Litigation, joined five organizations in a "friend of the court" brief pointing out that, while Title VII does not clearly delineate the rights of third-party victims, the sweeping phrasing of the law clearly envisions such an interpretation, and numerous courts have entertained third-party retaliation claims. Also favoring such a view was the EEOC, which has long supported the rights of a third party to bring his or her own cause of action of retaliation, even where another party filed the complaint that led to an employer's reprisals.

The Supreme Court agreed. Title VII's retaliation provision, because of its expansive wording, "must be construed to cover a broad range of employer misconduct." Hence, the court rejected the company's assertion that "third-party reprisals" never violate Title VII. The court declined to announce "a comprehensive set of clear rules," but added "We expect that firing a close family member will almost always [be unlawful while] inflicting a milder reprisal on a mere acquaintance will almost never [violate federal law]."

What's at Stake

Age and disability antidiscrimination laws closely track Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, so decisions affecting the scope of that law reverberate through the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, Americans With Disabilities Act and similar federal and state laws. Congress enacted Title VII recognizing that fear of retaliation by employers would effectively muzzle not only employees but the Civil Rights Act itself. Workers would be hesitant to bring complaints that could threaten their livelihood, and render them unemployable in communities with few job options. As AARP's brief argued, the anti-retaliation provisions should not be used to allow the employer to accomplish indirectly that which it could not do directly.

Thompson represents another in a series of victories in recent years by AARP attorneys in urging the U.S. Supreme Court to recognize broad protection for workers against workplace retaliation.

Status

Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP
returns to the trial court for consideration on its merits.


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