Caution: ‘Association discrimination’ is new HR worry

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,HR Management,Human Resources

You know it’s illegal to retaliate against an employee who has engaged in so-called “protected activity,” such as filing a discrimination complaint internally or with the EEOC. Now, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Ohio employers, has taken the concept one step further.

The court just ruled that retaliating against a third party related to or associated with another employee who engaged in protected activity is also illegal under Title VII. This concept—known as association discrimination—is becoming an increasingly important employment law issue.

Recent case:
Eric Thompson was engaged to a co-worker, Miriam Regalado, who filed a gender discrimination charge with the EEOC. Everyone who worked with them at North American Stainless knew about their relationship. A month after Regalado filed the EEOC complaint, the company fired Thompson.

Thompson filed his own EEOC complaint, alleging retaliation for supporting his fiancée in her sex discrimination case. The EEOC sided with him, and Thompson filed a federal lawsuit.

The trial court threw out the case, reasoning that the law didn’t protect third parties from retaliation.

The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s decision and reinstated the case. It reasoned that by punishing Thompson, the employer might have been trying to get back at Regalado—and that might be enough to dissuade a reasonable employee from filing a discrimination complaint, the key component of a retaliation case.

The court noted that the EEOC has long said it thinks retaliation against anyone associated with the person who actually complains about discrimination is illegal. However, this marks the first time a federal appeals court has agreed. In fact, at least three other circuits (the 3rd, 5th and 8th) have specifically rejected third-party retaliation Title VII claims. (Thompson v. North American Stainless, No. 07-5040, 6th Cir., 2008)

Final note: This case may find its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Until then, Ohio employers are bound by the decision.

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