Employment: Supreme Court Holds Fired Fiancée Has Retaliation Claim

02.01.11

Oh, Eric, Eric! Wherefore art thou Eric?

Well, Eric was no longer at North American Stainless, where he had been employed. NAS fired him when it learned his fiancée, also employed by NAS, had filed a charge of sex discrimination against it. So Eric filed his own charge with the EEOC and eventually sued NAS for retaliation in violation of Title VII.
The lower courts held Eric did not have a claim against NAS. Those courts reasoned that Title VII does not permit third party retaliation claims and Eric was not within the class of persons Congress intended to protect when it created a retaliation claim.

The Supreme Court took the case to address two questions: did NAS's firing of Eric constitute unlawful retaliation? And, if so, can Eric sue NAS under Title VII? The Supreme Court answered "yes" to both questions.

First, the Supreme Court held NAS's firing of Eric because his fiancée filed a charge of discrimination was unlawful retaliation. Unlike the text of Title VII's anti-discrimination provision, the text of Title VII's anti-retaliation provision does not limit it to discriminatory actions that affect the terms and conditions of employment. Instead, it prohibits any employer action that might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination. Having made this distinction, the Supreme Court easily concluded: "We think it obvious that a reasonable worker might be dissuaded from engaging in protected activity if she knew that her fiancée would be fired." (Because, after all, "parting is such sweet sorrow.")

Next, the Supreme Court wrestled with whether Eric could sue NAS under Title VII. Title VII provides that "a civil action may be brought . . . by the person claiming to be aggrieved." The Court held the word "aggrieved" in Title VII incorporates a "zone of interest" test; that is, a person has standing to sue under Title VII if he has an interest sought to be protected by that law. So, here, Eric was an employee of NAS; the purpose of Title VII is to protect employees from their employer's unlawful actions; NAS intended to harm Eric's fiancée when it fired him; hurting Eric was the unlawful act by which NAS punished his fiancée; and therefore Eric was within the zone of interest sought to be protected by Title VII and could sue.

Of course, the Supreme Court's decision begs the question: what types of relationships are entitled to protection? Justice Scalia, writing for the Court, acknowledged that an employer is now at risk when it fires an employee who happens to have some connection to another employee who has filed a charge with the EEOC. But the Court refused to identify a fixed class of relationships that would give rise to a claim. The only guidance offered by the Court was that "firing a close family member" will "almost always" qualify, while a "milder reprisal" on a "mere acquaintance" will "almost never do so." So it remains for courts in the future to figure this out.

Or, in the words of Shakespeare, "This day's black fate on more days doth depend; This but begins the woe others must end." Romeo & Juliet, 3.1

By Jon E. Brightmire jbrightmire@dsda.com

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Rebecca D. Bullard

Rebecca D. Bullard

Rebecca represents clients primarily in labor and employment litigation and counsels clients regarding everyday employment matters. 

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