U.S. Supreme Court Allows Third-Party Retaliation Claims

In a refreshing change for this conservative United States Supreme Court, the justices gave broad application to Title VII’s anti-retaliation protections in its recent decision in Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP . The Court found that an employee may bring a claim for retaliation under the federal civil rights law when he or she suffers an adverse employment action because someone “closely related” to the employee engaged in protected activity, such as filing a charge of discrimination or opposing discrimination.

In this case, Eric Thompson and his fiancée, Miriam Regalado, were both employed by North American Stainless. Three weeks after receiving notice that Regalado had filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), the company fired Thompson for alleged performance-based problems. Thompson filed his own EEOC charge and later sued the company, claiming that he had been fired in retaliation for his fiancée’s EEOC charge. The lower federal courts held that the anti-retaliation provisions of Title VII did not protect Thompson because he did not personally engage in protected activity on his own behalf or on behalf of his fiancée.

The Supreme Court reversed the Sixth Circuits decision, finding that the anti-retaliation provisions of Title VII must be construed broadly to encompass any employer action that might dissuade a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination. Clearly, an employee might be discouraged from making a charge of discrimination if she knew that her fiancé would be fired!

The Court refused to identify a fixed class of relationships for which third-party reprisals are unlawful but it noted that firing a close family member will likely fall within Title VII’s anti–retaliatory protections but that “a milder reprisal on a mere acquaintance “ will not.

New Jersey employers and employees should take notice of this ruling because protection from retaliation is equally broad under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD). Moreover, New Jersey courts generally look to Title VII for guidance in interpreting the NJLAD. An employee may have a cause of action for retaliation where he or she is closely associated with someone who has engaged in a protected activity and should consult a competent employment attorney for guidance.