A decision by the United States Supreme Court in January opened the door to a broader interpretation of the anti-discrimination laws. In the case before the Court, a female employee filed a sex discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and then three weeks later the company fired Mr. Thompson, who was her fiancé. The company lawyers argued that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act does not allow third parties to bring claims of retaliation but only the individual who themselves lodged the discrimination complaint. However, the Supreme Court of the United States in an 8-0 decision said that Mr. Thompson was protected by Title VII.
Thompson was not an accidental victim of the retaliation but, in effect, was collateral damage to the employer’s unlawful act. By terminating him they were retaliating against the female who had filed the charge and that was an unlawful act of punishment against her, although it was indirect. Mr. Thompson was in the “zone of interest” to be protected by Title VII and thus has standing to sue.
When does an office romance qualify as a close relationship? What if the couple had only been dating for a week or two? These are the issues left for future cases and future employers. It is a warning to employers to consider whether the person they are firing has a relationship to the complaining party such that it would be considered retaliation.
Douglas, Leonard & Garvey represents employees in discrimination and retaliation cases but we know that each case turns on its own unique and individual facts.