In a much anticipated decision, the U.S. Supreme Court in Thompson v. North America Stainless, LP recently extended the reach of retaliation claims under Title VII to third parties. Specifically, the Court held that an employee, Thompson, who was fired after his fiancée filed a sex discrimination claim against their mutual employer, North American Stainless, was entitled to bring a Title VII retaliation claim.
Title VII’s Anti-Retaliation Provision:
Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision protects employees who oppose unlawful employment practices, complain about discrimination in the workplace or assist in an investigation or proceeding relating to allegations of unlawful employment practice. Until Thompson, only claimants who had specifically opposed or complained about an unlawful employment action could bring claims for retaliation under Title VII.
The Court’s Broad and Seemingly Boundless Interpretation of Retaliation:
In determining whether Thompson could bring suit, the Court determined that the key issue is whether the employer’s actions “might well dissuade a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.” The Court stated it was “obvious” that a reasonable worker would be dissuaded from engaging in protected activity if she knew her fiancé would be fired.
Unfortunately, the Supreme Court did not provide clear-cut guidance as to what types of relationships trigger the retaliation statute. Nor did the Court limit its holding to those with romantic or familial relationships. Thus an employer is in a precarious position in determining whether an adverse employment action could lead to a viable claim for retaliation.
How to Avoid Retaliation Claims under the Newly Expansive Definition of Retaliation:
Now that the door to third-party retaliation claims is open, an employer must be even more careful when terminating, disciplining, transferring or taking any action against an employee that may be perceived as adverse. The following steps may help ward off potential claims:
- Make sure the employee handbook establishes clear guidelines for employee discipline and clearly sets forth the criteria for employee performance and behavior.
- Provide training to supervisors and managers regarding the newly expanded scope of retaliation. Ensure they enforce all disciplinary policies consistently and document all discipline in writing.
- Be able to articulate a legitimate business reason for any adverse employment action.
- Pay attention to relationships in the work place and consider revisiting or prohibiting romantic relationships.
- Take extra care if you are considering an adverse employment action against an employee who is in any way “close to” an employee who engaged in a protected activity.
- Consult with HR or an attorney before terminating any employee.
This article is for general informational purposes only, it is neither legal advice, nor is it intended to be legal advice; and it is not an exclusive statement of statutory or regulatory provisions or case law. Any questions should be submitted to an attorney for his/her analysis.