On December 7, 2010, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) heard oral arguments in Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP, 130 S. Ct. 3542. At issue is whether employers should be held liable for claims of retaliation asserted by their employees who are close friends, colleagues or family members of an employee who has filed a complaint or claim of discrimination. The nature of the relationship, ie., the closeness of the parties and/or the parameters of the relationship that would give rise to a retaliation claim is one of the major issues to be addressed by the Court. Under plaintiff’s theory, if a known “relationship” between the complainant and another employee is established, even if the latter did not participate in the filing of a claim or the investigation of a complaint, that other employee could assert a retaliation cause of action under Title VII.
To provide some further insight into the potential impact of the pending Supreme Court decision, here is a quick factual recap. Eric L. Thompson worked as a metallurgical engineer for defendant North American Stainless, LP, in Carroll County, Kentucky from February 1997 through March 2003. In 2000, Miriam Regalado was hired by Defendant. Thompson and Regalado began dating shortly after she was hired in 2000, and in 2003, when Thompson was fired, he and Regalado were engaged to be married. The relationship was common knowledge at North American Stainless at the time of Thompson’s termination.
Regalado filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in September 2002, alleging that her supervisors discriminated against her based on her gender. On February 13, 2003, the EEOC notified North American Stainless of Regalado’s charge. On March 7, 2003, the North American Stainless terminated Thompson’s employment citing performance based reasons. Thompson alleges that he was terminated in retaliation for his then-fiancée’s filing if her EEOC charge.
Thompson then filed his own charge with the EEOC, which conducted an investigation and found “reasonable cause to believe that [North American Stainless] violated Title VII.” After failed conciliation efforts, the EEOC issued a right-to-sue letter and Thompson filed suit against North American Stainless in the Eastern District of Kentucky. North American Stainless successfully moved for summary judgment on Thompson’s claim arguing that his “[r]elationship to [Regalado] was the sole motivating factor in his termination,” and was insufficient as a matter of law to support a cause of action under Title VII. The district court granted the defendant’s motion, holding that Thompson failed to state a claim under Title VII or the anti-retaliation provision of Title VII The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the ruling, and the Supreme Court granted certiorari.
Defense counsel and employers are understandably concerned about the potential implications of this case, as is the Supreme Court Justices, based on their questions to the lawyers arguing the case. For example, how close or intimate must a relationship be for the “other employee” to be protected under Title VII, and what is the obligation, if any, of the employer to know or be aware of relationships in the workplace. However, in light of a more conservative leaning bench, the general consensus is that the Supreme Court will rule in favor of the employer, even if it carves out a limited exception, perhaps for married or engaged employees.
Take heart. Even if SCOTUS recognizes a retaliation cause of action under the circumstances referenced above, it does not spell doom for employers. Instead, it signals the need for revisions of employment policies/handbooks (i.e., narrowly tailored non-fraternization policies—you should have them already) and updated training for supervisors and human resources personnel.
More to come on this important case.