Continuing a trend of ruling in favor of retaliation claims, the Supreme Court held that Title VII provides a cause of action when an employer fires the male fiancé of a female employee who filed a sex discrimination charge. The Court focused heavily on the text of the statute in reversing the en banc 6th Cir. The decision written by Scalia was unanimous, though Kagan did not participate. Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP, 2011 WL 197638 (Jan. 24, 2011).
Miriam Regalado filed a charge of sex discrimination with the EEOC. Three weeks after the EEOC notified her employer of her charge, the employer fired her fiancé, Eric Thompson. Thompson sued under Title VII, claiming his firing was in retaliation for Regalado’s charge. The district court dismissed the suit. A 6th Cir. panel reversed, but the en banc 6th Cir. affirmed.
The Supreme Court first addressed whether firing an employee’s fiancé was the type of conduct prohibited by Title VII. The Court noted that Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision broadly prohibits discrimination, without limiting its reach to a subset of employer acts. This provision prohibits any employer action that would dissuade a worker from filing a charge. Scalia stated: “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.” The employer argued that there would be a slippery slope of anyone being able to argue retaliation, if a fiancé could sue. The Court “decline[d] to identify a fixed class of relationships for which third-party reprisals are unlawful.” Refusing to provide a “comprehensive set of clear rules,” Scalia stated that the standard should be “objective” and not based on “a plaintiff’s unusual subjective feelings.”
The Court then turned to the “more difficult question” of whether Thompson had a cause of action under Title VII. The statute has a private right of action for “the person claiming to be aggrieved.” 42 U. S. C. §2000e–5(f)(1). The Court rejected “dictum” in a 1972 case that the aggrievement requirement was no different from Article III standing. The employer’s suggestion that the cause of action was limited to the employee who engaged in protected activity was likewise rejected by the Court. Instead, the Court incorporated a “zone of interests” test into the Title VII aggrievement requirement. This permits suit by individuals with interests “arguably [sought] to be protected” by Title VII, but not unrelated interests, such as a suit by a shareholder.
Assuming the facts of the complaint to be true, the Court held that Thompson was “well within the zone of interests sought to be protected by Title VII.” The purpose of Title VII, explained the Court, “is to protect employees from their employers’ unlawful actions.” Thompson was not an accidental victim, but rather “injuring him was the employer’s intended means of harming Regalado.”