The United States Supreme Court recently held that Title VII creates a cause of action for a third party retaliation claim when the plaintiff himself did not engage in protected activity. In Thompson v. North American Stainless, the plaintiff and his fiancée worked at the same employer. The plaintiff was terminated after his fiancée filed a sex discrimination charge with the EEOC against the employer. The plaintiff, therefore, sued under Title VII, claiming that the employer fired him in order to retaliate against his fiancée for filing the EEOC charge.
The Supreme Court held that the plaintiff had a third party cause of action under Title VII. The Court noted that Title VII’s prohibition on retaliation was broadly construed and, in this situation, a reasonable worker might be dissuaded from engaging in protected activity if she knew that her fiancé would be fired. Interestingly, the Court declined to set a bright line rule for a “fixed class” of relationships for which a third party action would be appropriate. Rather, the Court noted that it depended on the particular circumstances of each case and, more specifically, the relationship between two individuals and the level of reprisal that the employer inflicted. The Court went on to hold that the plaintiff had standing to sue because he fell within the “zone of interests” protected by Title VII. Specifically, the plaintiff’s termination was the employer’s means of harming the plaintiff’s fiancée and, therefore, he was a “person aggrieved” under Title VII.
This holding is significant for employers because it substantially widens the range of potential claims under Title VII. Employers should be cognizant of the relationships between individual employees, and carefully assess all ramifications of certain employment actions.