On Monday, January 24, 2011, the United States Supreme Court unanimously endorsed a broad reading of Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision, ruling that the alleged victim of retaliation has standing to sue even if he or she was not the person who engaged in protected activity.
In Thompson v. North American Stainless LP, employee Miriam Regalado filed a charge of sex discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) against her employer, and three weeks later the employer fired her fiancé, Eric Thompson. Regalado and Thompson both responded by suing the employer for unlawful retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”). However, the employer contended that even if it fired Thompson in retaliation for his fiancé’s charge of discrimination, Thompson was not covered by Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision because he was not the one who engaged in protected activity.
Title VII provides that “[i]t shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer to discriminate against any of his employees … because he has made a charge” under Title VII. Interpreting this provision broadly, the Supreme Court held that the company effectively discriminated against Regalado by terminating her fiancé in retaliation for her charge of discrimination. The Court reiterated that Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision is not limited to discriminatory actions that affect the terms and conditions of employment of the person who engaged in protected activity, but instead prohibits any employer action that “well might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.” In this instance, the Court concluded that a reasonable worker might be dissuaded from engaging in protected activity if she knew her fiancé would be fired as a result.
Next, the Court concluded that the right to sue for retaliation extended to Thompson, even though it was Regalado who engaged in the protected activity. Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision permits “a person claiming to be aggrieved” by unlawful retaliation to file a charge with the EEOC and to subsequently file a civil action if the EEOC declines to do so. Although the company retaliated against Regalado, not Thompson, the Court held that Thompson was nevertheless “aggrieved” by the retaliation and was therefore covered by Title VII.
This decision demonstrates that the right to recover damages under Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision extends to individuals who did not themselves engage in protected activity. Furthermore, the decision blurs the definition of what constitutes retaliatory conduct, in that it includes any conduct that might discourage a “reasonable worker” from engaging in protected activity, even if such conduct does not negatively affect the terms and conditions of that worker’s employment. Therefore, employers must closely examine any employment actions that might conceivably be construed to bear a relationship to protected activity, even if the contemplated actions do not directly affect anyone who engaged in the protected activity.
To learn more about your responsibilities under Title VII and/or other federal, state and local antidiscrimination and anti-retaliation laws, be sure to contact your employment counsel at Smith, Gambrell & Russell, LLP.