The Supreme Court And The Scope Of Title VII’s Anti-Discrimination Clause

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act has a broad anti-discrimination clause. 42 U.S.C. Section 2000e-3(a) provides that it “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. Title VII permits “a person claiming to be aggrieved” to file a charge with the EEOC alleging that the employer committed an unlawful employment practice, and, if the EEOC declines to sue the employer, it permits a civil action to “be brought…by the person claiming to be aggrieved…by the alleged unlawful employment practice.”

In Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP, issued on January 24, 2011, the Supreme Court was required to define the range of individuals protected by Title VII’s anti-discrimination clause. The case involved Eric Thompson and his fiancée, Miriam Regalado, who were employees of respondent North American Stainless (NAS). In February 2003, the EEOC notified NAS that Regalado had filed a charge alleging sex discrimination. Three weeks later, NAS fired Thompson.

Thompson then sued, claiming he was retaliated against because Regalado filed her charge with the EEOC. NAS opposed the lawsuit, arguing that Thompson did not engage in any statutorily protected activity, either on his own behalf or on behalf of Miriam Regalado, and thus was not covered by the anti-discrimination clause.
A unanimous Supreme Court rejected NAS’s defense. The Court found that “we have little difficulty concluding that if the facts alleged by Thompson are true, then NAS’s firing of Thompson violated Title VII. We think it obvious that a reasonable worker might be dissuaded from engaging in protected activity if she knew that her fiancé would be fired.”

NAS argued that prohibiting reprisals against third parties “will lead to difficult line-drawing problems concerning the types of relationships entitled to protection. Perhaps retaliating against an employee by firing his fiancée would dissuade the employee from engaging in protected activity, but what about firing an employee’s girlfriend, close friend, or trusted co-worker?” The Court was unconvinced, holding that it would “decline to identify a fixed class of relationships for which third-party reprisals are unlawful. We expect that firing a close family member will almost always meet the standard, and inflicting a milder reprisal on a mere acquaintance will almost never do so, but beyond that we are reluctant to generalize. Given the broad statutory text and the variety of workplace contexts in which retaliation may occur, Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision is simply not reducible to a comprehensive set of clear rules.”

The Court concluded that “Thompson falls within the zone of interests protected by Title VII. Thompson was an employee of NAS, and the purpose of Title VII is to protect employees from their employers’ unlawful actions. Moreover, accepting the facts as alleged, Thompson is not an accidental victim of the retaliation – collateral damage, so to speak – of the employer’s unlawful act. To the contrary, injuring him was the employer’s intended means of harming Regalado. Hurting him was the unlawful act by which the employer punished her. In those circumstances, we think Thompson well within the zone of interests sought to be protected by Title VII. He is a person aggrieved with standing to sue.”

Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP, No. 09-291 (S. Ct. 2011).

This article appears in the March 2011 issue.