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“My fiancée got me fired”: The evolution of retaliation claims

July 1st, 2009  |  Deborah Hammonds

>With the Sixth Circuit’s recent pro-employer ruling on associational retaliation, and a current split on the matter unfolding among the circuits, this issue may well be headed to the Supreme Court next term…to a Court under Chief Justice Roberts that has been decisively pro-employee in its retaliation decisions. But is this case really much ado about nothing?

In Thompson v North American Stainless, LP, a male employee, who alleged that he was fired shortly after his fiancée filed an EEOC sex-bias charge against their shared employer, had no reprisal claim under Title VII. The plain and unambiguous statutory language of Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision requires employees to personally engage in protected activity, held a 10-6 en banc Sixth Circuit, affirming a district court’s grant of summary judgment for the employer. The majority observed that the plain language of Title VII will protect most close relationships because “‘[i]n most cases, the relatives and friends who are at risk of retaliation will have participated in some manner in a co-worker’s charge of discrimination.” Here, though, the employee did not claim that he engaged in any statutorily protected activity either on his own behalf or on behalf of his fiancée.

In so holding, the Sixth Circuit joined the Third, Fifth and Eighth Circuits, which have previously considered and rejected similar associational retaliation claims.

Note, however, the EEOC takes the position in its Compliance Manual that Title VII prohibits retaliation against someone so closely related to, or associated with, the person exercising his or her statutory rights that it would discourage that person from pursuing those rights. For example, “it would be unlawful for [an employer] to retaliate against an employee because his or her spouse, who is also an employee, filed an EEOC charge.” Both spouses, in such circumstances, could bring retaliation claims, said the agency. Does this mean simply having that close association to the charging party, without engaging in protected activity, is enough to also assert an associational retaliation claim? It seems that way, according to the EEOC. The Seventh and Eleventh Circuits have also interpreted Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision broadly to protect associated third parties from retaliation.

What does all this mean? Well, in its holding, the majority wrote: “[the] plaintiff and the EEOC request that we become the first circuit court to hold that Title VII creates a cause of action for third-party retaliation on behalf of friends and family members who have not engaged in protected activity.” (Emphasis added).

Personally, I think the majority got it right by not doing so. The Sixth Circuit appears not to question the legality of associational retaliation claims, but believes that merely having an “association” with the charging party, without also personally engaging in some protected activity, is not enough. The employee did not personally oppose any alleged discrimination. And we won’t get into whether “silent opposition” is opposition, even if some dissenting judges seem to think it is. If, however, the employee had engaged in some kind of participation activity, like help his fiancée complete her EEOC sex-bias charge, and participated in any interview with the agency, he likely would have been able to get past summary judgment on his retaliatory discharge claim. But, the employee admitted he did not personally oppose any alleged discrimination or participate in her charge. So, no dice.

None of this means employers should rest on their laurels. The Supreme Court seems to like retaliation cases and may take this one just to clarify the issues. Besides, there is this circuit split, a split that may have more to do with whether closely associated individuals have personally engaged in a protected activity, not with whether the reach of Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision includes associational discrimination claims. Of note, the employee’s attorney indicated that he is considering filing a cert petition.

In the meantime, a little retaliation-prevention training couldn’t hurt, since the EEOC reported that the number of retaliation claims filed with the agency jumped from 22,663 in FY 2007 to 32,690 in FY 2008, a nearly 23-percent increase. This was the second highest increase in charge filings, next to age discrimination.

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