Supreme Court Rules for Employees in Unusual Anti-Discrimination Case

Supreme Court Rules for Employees in Unusual Anti-Discrimination Case
Supreme Court Rules for Employees in Unusual Anti-Discrimination Case

By a unanimous 8-0 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that anti-discrimination laws forbid employers from firing a complaining employee's fiance. In the case of Thompson v. North American Stainless, the court ruled that if the company fired Eric Thompson in retaliation for complaints his co-worker and fiancee, Miriam Regalado, made about sex discrimination to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, then Stainless acted illegally. That would enable Regalado to sue over his firing. But in this case, Thompson was asking for the right to sue on his own behalf, and the court agreed he could. Justice Elena Kagan didn't take part in the decision.

The pro-employee opinion was authored by Justice Antonin Scalia, who noted that the court had previously decided that the anti-discrimination laws protections against retaliation for complaining were broad, and called it "obvious that a reasonable worker might be dissuaded from engaging in protected activity if she knew that her fiance would be fired." As a result, the firing was illegal and Regalado could sue for retaliation.

While Scalia acknowledged Stainless's claim that "prohibiting reprisals against third parties will lead to difficult line-drawing problems concerning the types of relationships entitled to protection," he noted that wasn't enough to categorically prevent them. As to where the line will ultimately fall, Scalia refused to say beyond setting out two broad markers: "We expect that firing a close family member will almost always meet the Burlington standard, and inflicting a milder reprisal on a mere acquaintance will almost never do so, but beyond that we are reluctant to generalize."

The second issue -- whether Thomson himself could sue -- Scalia considered tougher, but not that tough. Indeed, after saying that anyone within anti-discrimination law's protected "zone of interests" had the right to sue, he concluded Thompson's situation wasn't even a close call:

"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. In those circumstances, we think Thompson well within the zone of interests sought to be protected by Title VII."

Win for One Employee Limits Others' Rights to Sue

Readers may wonder why the generally pro-business conservative wing of the court sided with the employee in this case. Beyond the obvious -- the decision relied on precedent and makes good sense -- two other factors probably were in play. First, Thompson had a potent ally: The U.S. government weighed in on his side. When the solicitor general supports a plaintiff or defendant with the backing of the executive branch, it has been shown to have a significant impact on case outcomes.
Other friends of the court filing briefs on Thompson's behalf included a coalition of organizations led by the National Employment Lawyers Association, and the National Women's Law Center.

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The other factor for the justices may have been the opportunity to clarify precisely who had the right to sue under the anti-discrimination statute. Scalia's opinion spends some time rejecting "ill-considered" side comments from an earlier court opinion that had been interpreted to let more people sue than Monday's decision does. So it's possible to read this decision as reducing the number of employees able to show they have the right to sue.

In any case, the justices' decision is not a ruling that Stainless retaliated against Regalado when it fired Thompson: It just means Thompson will get his day in court. And surprising as it may seem to some, this decision isn't particularly groundbreaking, in the sense that it merely confirms the EEOC's longstanding interpretation of the law, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg notes in a concurrence. Still, after Monday, employees nationwide should feel a little more secure in their jobs.