Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP: Anti-Retaliation Protection is Expanded to Include Friends, Relatives and Anyone "Closely Associated" with a Complaining Employees

In Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP, the plaintiff alleged he had been fired because his wife -- who had previously worked for the same employer –filed a charge of discrimination against it with the EEOC. The trial court granted summary judgment against the husband on the ground that he himself had never engaged in any of conduct protected by Title VII – such as opposing the alleged discrimination or participating in the government investigation. 

In a very significant March 31, 2008 opinion, the Sixth Circuit court of appeals reversed and allowed his suit to go forward. As the majority acknowledged, “a literal reading of [Title VII] section 704(a) suggests a prohibition on employer retaliation only when it is directed to the individual who conducted the protected activity.”  It concluded, however, that the language of the statute itself should not be controlling because “tolerance of third-party reprisals would, no less than the tolerance of direct reprisals, deter persons from exercising their protected rights under Title VII.” 

Thus, the Court followed the position urged by the EEOC by extending statutory protection to any third party that is deemed to be “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.” (citing the EEOC Compliance Manual.)

In construing the rights provided by the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), California courts typically follow the interpretations that federal courts have given to analogous provisions of Title VII. As a result, it is a safe bet that California courts will begin applying Thompson in state court FEHA actions at the first opportunity.

Employers must therefore recognize that action affecting “associated” individuals will now be subjected to increased scrutiny. For example, imagine a small employer who is being sued for wrongful termination while the plaintiff’s spouse continues to work in the same office – perhaps in a sensitive position with access to confidential information. The employer may rightly feel that the spouse is a “security risk” who may funnel confidential information to the other side, or that her loyalty must inevitably be tainted by her disgruntled spouse. Under these circumstances, it would be tempting to terminate or transfer the remaining spouse. Under Thompson this would be a very dangerous course of action.

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