I have always made this claim, but the Supreme Court finally agreed with me.
Title VII makes it illegal for an employer to retaliate against an employee who has filed a discrimination claim. But what if an employer is genuinely evil, and knowing that attacking the employee would be obvious retaliation, instead seeks to put that employee in her place by demoting a spouse or firing a friend? Can that other person also invoke the protections of Title VII, arguing that even though he did not file the complaint, he is protected from retaliation?
That is the situation that allegedly arose in Thompson v. North American Stainless. Miriam Regalado, a female employee, filed a sex discrimination claim, and three weeks later, according to the suit, the company fired her fiancée Eric Thompson. Thompson sued under Title VII, claiming the company had fired him to retaliate against Regalado for filing her complaint.
The District Court was not impressed with the complaint, holding that Title VII did not permit this sort of third-party claims. The Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit agreed, but the Supremes reversed.
"Thompson was an employee of NAS, and the purpose of Title VII is to protect employees from their employers' unlawful actions," he wrote. "Hurting him was the unlawful act by which the employer punished [Regalado]." In those circumstances, said Scalia, Thompson is "well within the zone of interests" protected by Title VII.
With this opinion, the Supreme Court has cleared up a split of decisions among differing districts. Third-party claims now have the green light.
Lesson for businesses: As I have preached here before, in the context of employment law, perception is reality. The reasons and motives of North American Stainless for terminating Thompson may have been perfectly appropriate, but the timing was terrible. The company created a new claim, and bolstered the original claim. The flagpole watcher approach would have been a better option.