States Supreme Court recently issued an 8-0 decision concerning the reach of
the retaliation protections of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In Thompson
v. North American Stainless LP, the Supreme Court considered whether an
employee could bring a retaliation claim where he himself had not complained of
discrimination or engaged in any other protected activity, but alleged that he
was subjected to retaliatory treatment for the filing of a discrimination
charge by someone else – in this case, it was the employee’s fiancée who also
worked for the same employer. In a decision issued January 24, 2011, the court
held that an employee could state a claim for retaliation based on his association
with another employee.
In tackling this issue, the Supreme Court
considered how close the relationship needs to be in order to trigger
liability. The court held that to have an actionable claim, an individual must
fall within the "zone of interests" sought to be protected under the
anti-discrimination laws. Noting that these laws serve to protect employees
from their employers’ unlawful actions, the court concluded that the employee
in question was not "an accidental victim of the retaliation," but
rather "injuring him was the employer’s intended means of harming"
the fiancée. Therefore, he fell within the appropriate "zone of
interests" and could bring a claim in his own right.
The Supreme Court’s decision is in line with
the position of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which has taken
the position that employees can bring retaliation claims based on their
association with other employees. The Massachusetts Commission Against
Discrimination has taken a similar position under Massachusetts law.
The anti-discrimination laws contain strong
retaliation provisions, making it unlawful for employers to take adverse action
against employees who complain of discrimination. The protections against
retaliation have posed special problems for employers, who often find
themselves liable for retaliation even when the underlying claims of
discrimination are without merit. Accordingly, employers need to pay special
attention to their treatment of employees who complain of discrimination. As
this recent Supreme Court decision makes clear, they also need to pay attention
to their treatment of employees who have strong ties to other employees who
complain of discrimination.