Ordinarily, employers can’t punish employees who stand up for co-workers who are being discriminated against. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act makes it illegal to punish employees who oppose unlawful employment practices.
But what if the employee speaks out against the employer’s treatment of someone who is not an employee? As the following case shows, punishing the employee probably doesn’t violate Title VII.
Recent case: Harlan Ashcraft worked as a deputy sheriff. His wife also had worked for the same sheriff’s office until she settled a sexual harassment complaint against it. She told her husband that another sheriff’s department employee was spreading false rumors about her and sexual relationships she was allegedly having with various men.
Ashcraft, apparently defending his wife’s honor, complained to about what he saw as sexual harassment aimed at his wife. The sheriff’s office then fired him.
Ashcraft sued, alleging that he had been punished for opposing an unlawful employment practice—sexual harassment.
But the court tossed out his claim. It reasoned that nothing in Title VII forbids someone from spreading rumors about a non-employee. Therefore, Ashcraft’s complaint wasn’t protected activity. (Ashcraft v. Beicker, et al., No. 07-CV-00860, DC CO, 2008)
Final note: Family ties are tricky. Be careful to distinguish this type of case from so-called “association” claims. For example, it is illegal to punish someone for associating with a disabled individual, even if the disabled person isn’t an employee. You can’t refuse to hire someone with a disabled spouse or child, despite higher costs.
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