Supreme Court Widens Potential Employer Retaliation Suit Liability

January 24, 2011 ( – A man who said he was fired because his then-fiance complained about sexual discrimination at the same company can pursue his retaliation lawsuit, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled.

Justice Antonin Scalia, wriing for a unanimous court, declared in Thompson versus North American Stainless that Eric Thompson has the right to sue the stainless steel manufacturer for retaliating against him even when it was the woman who is now his wife, Miriam Regalado, who had complained of discrimination as a fellow North American Stainless employee.

“We think it obvious,” Scalia declared, ”that a reasonable worker might be dissuaded from engaging in protected activity if she knew that her fiancé would be fired.”

Lower courts had ruled for the employer – asserting that only those who themselves had complained of discrimination and then contended they had been retaliated against because of their own claim could bring a case like Thompson’s (see Appellate Court Limits Retaliation Claims).

In its reversal of the prior rulings, the high court responded to the employer’s argument that such a holding would put it in an untenable position to discharge employees and then face retaliation suits from unspecific third parties/fellow employees (“Perhaps retaliating against an employee by firing his fiancée would dissuade the employee from engaging in protected activity, but what about firing an employee’s girlfriend, close friend, or trusted co-worker?,” Scalia wondered).

Scalia offered some help to specify the scope of the high court’s ruling. “We must also decline to identify a fixed class of relationships for which third-party reprisals are unlawful. We expect that firing a close family member will almost always (qualify under the Thompson decision), and inflicting a milder reprisal on a mere acquaintance will almost never do so, but beyond that we are reluctant to generalize.”

Under the facts of the Thompson case, according to the high court, Thompson’s interests were directly related to what happened to Regalado even though she was the one filing the discrimination complaint. “Moreover, accepting the facts as alleged, Thompson is not an accidental victim of the retaliation—collateral damage, so to speak, of the employer’s unlawful act. To the contrary, injuring him was the employer’s intended means of harming Regalado. Hurting him was the unlawful act by which the employer punished her,” Scalia claimed.

Scalia added: “Thompson was an employee of NAS, and the purpose of Title VII is to protect employees from their employers’unlawful actions.”

According to court records, Thompson worked at an NAS facility in Carroll County, Kentucky, as a metallurgical engineer starting in 1997 where he met Regalado after she was hired at NAS in 2000. The couple began dating and were then engaged; the engagement was well known among their colleagues.

Scalia’s ruling is at