Appeals Court reverses stance; gives a thumbs down to ‘association discrimination’

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in Employment Law,Human Resources

In a decision sure to create a buzz, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that Title VII does not provide retaliation protection for employees who weren’t involved in protected activity. 

The decision reverses an earlier panel decision and reflects the opinion of the entire court (rather than just three judges).

Recent case: Eric Thompson worked for North American Stainless, where he met his future wife. While she was still his fiancée, she filed an EEOC complaint alleging that she had been discriminated against because of her sex. A few weeks after the EEOC notified the company about the complaint, it fired Thompson.

Thompson had played no part in his fiancée’s complaint, and claimed he had been fired in retaliation for it. In other words, he claimed that the company knew it couldn’t fire his fiancée because that would be retaliation, but it could fire him to get at her.

In this ruling, the 6th Circuit said Congress intended to protect only those who actively pursued their rights, and not passive bystanders. Thus, it dismissed the lawsuit. It did not matter that punishing Thompson might also hurt the fiancée economically. (Thompson v. North American Stainless, No. 07-5040, 6th Cir., 2009)

Final notes: The ADA has a specific provision covering discrimination against employees who “associate with” disabled individuals, so such claims aren’t covered by this decision. Also, chances are good that this case will be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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