Supreme Court expands employee anti-retaliation protections

In an 8-0 vote, the Supreme Court upheld the EEOC’s interpretation of the anti-retaliation provision of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by holding that retaliation against close family members almost always qualifies as unlawful retaliation.

The Court reached this decision in the case of Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP, where North American Stainless fired Thompson upon learning that his fiancée, also an employee, filed an EEOC claim alleging sex discrimination. When Thompson filed his own EEOC claim alleging retaliation, the trial court granted NAS summary judgment on the grounds that Title VII, and the Sixth Circuit ruled that Thompson could not file the claim because he was discriminated against.

The Court reversed the Sixth Circuit. Writing for the majority, Justice Scalia held that Title VII’s provision regarding retaliation was not limited to discrimination affecting the terms and conditions of employment, but also prohibits actions that would dissuade reasonable workers from filing their own claims of discrimination.

Additionally, the Court applied the “zone of interests” standard in Lujan v. National Wildlife Federation, 497 U.S. 871 (1992), which helps the court determine whether a plaintiff has standing. The standard holds that plaintiffs can sue only if they fall in the zones of interest that the relevant statute meant to protect. Justice Scalia held that Thompson was within Title VII’s zone of interest, as Title VII means to protect employees, and NAS fired Thompson in order to retaliate against his fiancée.

In a brief concurrence joined by Justice Breyer, Justice Ginsberg noted that this ruling is consistent with both the views of the EEOC and the interpretations of the National Labor Relations Act.

While the ruling provides the EEOC a greater ability to adapt to different ways employers can retaliate, employers must exercise greater caution in discharging employees who have engaged in protected activities such as filing complaints. For more information about this case, SCOTUSblog has devoted a page to articles and court documents relating to this case.

(hat tip: ABA Section of Labor and Employment Law)