Workplace Retaliation Protections Extended by Supreme Court

A unanimous Supreme Court ruling was handed down yesterday. Employers can be sued if they retaliate against a relative or close associate of a worker who filed a discrimination claim. Retaliation is when employers punish a worker for complaining about discrimination.

In 2002 Miriam Regalado filed a sex discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against her employer, Acerinox SA's North American Stainless. Three weeks after the commission contacted the employer as part of the investigation her then-fiancé, Eric Thompson, who also worked for North American Stainless, was fired.

Mr. Thompson sued, alleging that he was fired in retaliation for Ms. Regalado's complaint under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII prohibits employment discrimination as well as retaliation for complaining about discrimination.

The case was originally thrown out by The Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. The Court's reasoning was that Mr. Thompson could not sue because he had not engaged in an activity protected by Title VII, such as complaining about discrimination.

For the record, North American Stainless said in its brief that Mr. Thompson was fired for poor performance and writing a memo "derogatory to North American Stainless' management practices."

The Supreme Court found that the anti-retaliation provision covers "a broad range of employer conduct" that could deter "a reasonable worker" from objecting to discrimination. Writing for the Supreme Court, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote, "We think it obvious that a reasonable worker might be dissuaded...if she knew that her fiancée would be fired."

To keep the provision from being abused, the court said that to file suit, a third party must fall within a "zone of interests" the law protects.

Because he was a North American Stainless employee Mr. Thompson qualified. Justice Scalia wrote, "and the purpose of Title VII is to protect employees from their employers' unlawful actions." The case is expected to go to trial unless settled.

Justices Extend Protection Over Workplace Retaliation,
The Wall Street Journal, January 25, 2011