US Supreme Court Confirms Right For Third-Parties to Bring Retaliation Claims

A plaintiff claimed he was fired by his employer in retaliation for his fiancé’s filing of an EEOC complaint against the same employer. On January 24, 2011, the US Supreme Court unanimously held that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act protects a third-party such as a fiancé from employer retaliation based on a co-employee’s protected activity.

The US Supreme Court held that Title VII’s antiretaliation provision must be construed to cover a broad range of employer conduct. The Court relied on the standard set forth in Burlington N. & S. F. R. Co. v. White (2006) 548 U.S. 53, which prohibits employers from acts that would dissuade a reasonable worker from making or supporting a discrimination charge. The Supreme Court found that the Burlington standard must be applied in an objective fashion, and found that a reasonable worker obviously might be dissuaded from engaging in protected activity if she knew that her fiancé would be fired.

The US Supreme Court further found that Thompson was within the “zone of interests” sought to be protected by Title VII’s antiretaliation provisions and had standing to sue as an aggrieved party.

While it is now clear that fiancés have the right to sue for retaliation, the US Supreme Court declined to identify a fixed class of relationships for which third-party retaliation is unlawful. In the majority opinion, Justice Scalia states, “We expect that firing a close family member will almost always meet the Burlington standard, and that inflicting a milder reprisal on a mere acquaintance will almost never do so, but beyond that we are reluctant to generalize.” The Supreme Court went on to state that the significance of any given act of retaliation will often depend on the particular circumstances. As a result, the Supreme Court left open the question of whether third-parties such as friends of those making discrimination and sexual harassment complaints can succeed on retaliation claims.

If you feel that you have been retaliated against at work because of your relationship with a coworker who has opposed sexual harassment or discrimination, it is worth exploring the facts of your particular situation with a knowledgeable retaliation attorney to see if you have a viable case under the precedent set by this case.

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