The U.S. Supreme Court announced that employees, who never engaged in protected activity, can bring third-party retaliation claims against their employers when they suffer an adverse employment action due to their connection with a person who has engaged in protected activity.

The facts of Thompson v. North American Stainless are straightforward.  In February 2003 North American Stainless was advised by the EEOC that Miriam Regalado filed a sex discrimination charge of discrimination against it.  Three weeks later, Regalado’s fiancee, Eric Thomas, was terminated.  Thomas filed a charge of discrimination of his own alleging that he was fired in retaliation because his fiancee filed a charge of discrimination.  The EEOC found that Thomas had been retaliated against and issued a right to sue letter when conciliation was unsuccessful.

When the case reached the trial court, the judge dismissed the suit finding that Title VII did not recognize third-party retaliation claims.  Because the case was decided on a motion to dismiss (prior to any discovery), the reviewing courts were required to take Thomas’ allegation as true (i.e., that he was in-fact, terminated for his fiance’s charge of discrimination).  The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal for a different reason.  The Sixth Circuit concluded that Thomas never engaged in protected activity because he didn’t filed a charge on his or his fiance’s behalf prior to his termination and therefore he couldn’t bring a retaliation claim.

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed.  Justice Scalia wrote, in a unanimous opinion (Kagan not participating) that the Court has little trouble concluding that if Thomas was fired because his fiancee filed a charge of discrimination, then he has a claim under the anti-retaliation provisions of Title VII.  The Court refused, however, to provide a bright line test as to which third-parties might have a claim stating:

We expect that firing a close family member will almost always meet the Burlington standard, and inflicting a milder reprisal on a mere acquaintance will almost never do so, but beyond that we are reluctant to generalize. . .   The significance of any given act of retaliation will often depend upon the particular circumstances.

 In holding that Thompson had a claim, the Court next concluded that Thompson had standing to sue.  The Court held that a plaintiff within the zone of interest sought to be protected by Title VII (i.e., protecting employees from unlawful actions of employer), has standing to bring a claim against his employer even though the employee had not engaged in protected activity himself.  The Thompson opinion clearly expand the scope of potential plaintiffs that can bring claims against their employers regardless of whether or not they engage in protected activity.

You can read the full opinion here