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Employers everywhere must be extra cautious about discipline that could be construed as retaliation now that the U.S. Supreme Court has unanimously affirmed that the fiancé of a woman who filed an EEOC discrimination complaint was protected from retaliation by their mutual employer.

Recent case: Eric Thompson was engaged to Miriam Regalado, a co-worker at North American Stainless (NAS). Regalado filed a gender discrimination charge with the EEOC. Everyone who worked with them at NAS knew about their relationship.

Shortly after Regalado complained, NAS fired Thompson, allegedly for poor performance. That led Thompson to complain to the EEOC, alleging retaliation for supporting his fiancée’s sex discrimination case. Then he filed his own federal lawsuit.

The trial court and later a federal appeals court tossed out his case, reasoning that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act didn’t protect third parties from retaliation. He appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The High Court unanimously agreed that Thompson could sue for retaliation. It said Title VII of the Civil Rights Act was clearly intended to protect everyone who might be harmed by retaliation, not just those who file discrimination complaints. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote, “We think it obvious that a reasonable worker might be dissuaded from engaging in protected activity if she knew that her fiancé would be fired.”

That’s the test for retaliation: Would the threat of an adverse employment action dissuade a reasonable person from complaining about discrimination in the first place? (Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP, No. 09-291, U.S. Supreme Court, 2011)

Final note: The court didn’t say everyone who has a relationship with a complaining co-worker might have retaliation protection. Family members almost certainly do, but close friends and trusted co-workers might not. Courts will have to sort that out case by case.

Read more about the case at www.theHRSpecialist.com/2011retaliation.

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