Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision prohibits any employer action that may dissuade a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination. This provision is meant to further “Title VII’s goal of a workplace free from discrimination . . . by preventing an employer from interfering (through retaliation) with an employee’s efforts to secure or advance enforcement of Title VII’s basic guarantees.” Tepperwien v. Entergy Nuclear Operations, Inc., 663 F.3d 556, 567 (2d Cir. 2011) (internal quotation marks and alterations omitted).
In Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP, 562 U.S. 170 (2011), the Supreme Court determined that such prohibited actions include retaliation against third parties that would have the effect of dissuading a reasonable employee from engaging in a protected activity. More specifically, the Court found that an employee who was fired after his fiancé filed a sex discrimination charge with the EEOC could bring a claim for unlawful retaliation under Title VII.
In that case, the Plaintiff and his fiancé both worked for the Defendant. The Plaintiff’s fiancé filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC, and three weeks later, the Defendant terminated the Plaintiff’s employment. The Plaintiff thereafter brought a lawsuit under Title VII, claiming that he was fired in retaliation for his fiancé filing her complaint. The Defendant argued that only the employee who actually complained could sue – not the complaining party’s fiancé.
The Supreme Court held that “Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision must be construed to cover a broad range of employer conduct.” The Court then noted, “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.” In other words, the purpose of Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision would be undermined if an employer could simply fire a third party to punish an employee who complains about discrimination.
The Court determined that an employee is thus eligible to bring a Title VII claim when that person “falls within the ‘zone of interests’ sought to be protected by the statutory provision.” It then noted that “firing a close family member will almost always meet” this test. The Court further held that the “aggrieved” third party has standing to bring a Title VII retaliation claim against the employer even though the third party has not engaged in protected activity himself. That is because injuring the third party is the “unlawful act by which the employer punished” the person engaging in the protected activity.
If you feel that you were retaliated against soon after your spouse, fiancé, or other family member complained of discrimination, we recommend consulting with a New York employment attorney to fully understand your rights under the law.