You might recall that in December we reported on Thompson v. North American Stainless, a case before the Supreme Court that involves the scope of legal protections for employees who experience punishment from their employers in retaliation for bringing discrimination claims. Eric Thompson was fired only a few weeks after his fiancée (who worked in the same plant) complained of sex discrimination by their mutual employer. But the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held that Thompson didn’t have the right to bring a retaliation suit under Title VII, because he wasn’t the one who complained about sex discrimination.
Yesterday — only about a month and a half after oral arguments — the Court handed down its unanimous decision in the case, reversing the Sixth Circuit and holding that Thompson can bring a retaliation lawsuit against his former employer, North American Stainless.
Why such a speedy, unanimous decision? We think the reason is simple — the law was unequivocally on the employee’s side in this case. Title VII, the federal law prohibiting employment discrimination provides broad protection against employer retaliation, because if employees are afraid to speak up when they experience (for example) sexual harassment, the laws prohibiting this harassment will have far less effect.
Justice Scalia wrote the decision for the Court. Although he has recently made statements indicating that he rejects the Constitution’s fundamental protection against sex discrimination, even he acknowledged that Thompson’s firing in retaliation for his fiancée’s complaints of sex discrimination was clearly unlawful under Title VII.
Justice Scalia wrote, “We have little difficulty concluding that if the facts alleged by Thompson are true, than [the employer’s] firing of Thompson violated Title VII.” He added, “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.” The National Women’s Law Center, in its amicus brief to the Court, made this very point, and underscored that it is by no means unusual for employers to punish family members and friends in retaliation against workers who engage in protected activity.
The harder question, the Court wrote, was whether Thompson (rather than his fiancée) was the right person to bring the retaliation lawsuit. (At oral argument, the Justices questioned counsel as to whether Thompson’s fiancée, Miriam Regalado, could have brought suit challenging his termination.) But the Court reasoned that in this case Thompson was “well within” the “zone of interests” protected by Title VII, because the law was intended to provide protections to employees, like Thompson, and the employer’s actions were intended to harm him directly.
Justice Ginsburg filed a concurrence (joined by Justice Breyer) emphasizing that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has long interpreted Title VII to prohibit retaliation against close associates of a person who complains of discrimination.
The decision in Thompson is the first among the many Supreme Court cases this term that are enormously important for women and girls. The Court’s decision yesterday was a victory for employees in an era when the Supreme Court too often sides with corporations and powerful interests rather than following the intent of the law in protecting individuals facing the real-life challenges of the workplace.