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Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP: A Case About Job Discrimination

Security of workers' friends and family may be at stake

Can a company legally retaliate against an employee’s friends, relatives or spouse because the employee filed a discrimination claim? That issue lies at the heart of Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP. The case was brought by Eric Thompson, who was fired from his job as a metallurgical engineer in 2003 three weeks after his employer learned that Miriam Regalado, his co-worker and then-fiancée (they’re now married), had filed a sex discrimination claim against the company. Lower courts ruled that she was protected from retaliation, but he was not.

What’s at stake. As in this term's Staub v. Proctor Hospital case, the Court’s decision is certain to apply to other federal antidiscrimination laws. Age discrimination complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have been rising for the past several years and hit an all-time high of 24,582 in fiscal 2008. Complaints about other forms of discrimination have also been on the rise.

Where AARP stands. AARP, siding with Thompson, argues that “third-party employees must be permitted to file claims to redress their own injuries.”

How the Court Ruled

In a unanimous decision issued on Jan. 24, the Court sided with Thompson, holding that the protections of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act extend to those who claim third-party retaliation.

"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," Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in delivering the Court's opinion (PDF).

The Court said that its decision would almost always apply to "a close family member" but probably not to "a mere acquaintance."

Next: Is a parent company liable for its subsidiary's violations?

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