Supreme Court Interested in Retaliation Claim When Employer Takes Adverse Action Against Spouse

This week, the United States Supreme Court asked the Justice Department to give an opinion on whether the Court should review a ruling from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals that Title VII’s anti-retaliation provisions did not cover an employee who claimed to be terminated because his fiancée had filed a sex discrimination charge against their employer.

In Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP, 567 F.3d 804 (6th Cir. 2009), a splintered full panel of the Sixth Circuit considered a retaliation claim brought under Title VII by a man who alleged that he was terminated in retaliation for his fiancée’s (a co-worker) EEOC charge of sex discrimination. In a 10-6 decision, a majority of the Sixth Circuit held that the authorized class of claimants under Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision is limited to persons who have personally engaged in the protected activity by opposing a practice, making a charge, assisting or participating in an investigation. Because the plaintiff in Thompson did not claim that he engaged in any statutorily protected activity on either his own behalf or his fiancée’s behalf, the Sixth Circuit determined that he failed to show that he engaged in protected activity by personally “opposing” a discriminatory practice.

The Thompson plaintiff filed a petition for Supreme Court review, arguing in part that the Justices should review the case because the Sixth Circuit’s decision created “a grotesque incentive” for employers to retaliate against a worker by punishing the worker’s friends or relatives. The defendant employer filed a brief opposing review, stating that the Sixth Circuit’s decision properly applied the statute as written as is the court’s obligation. The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent invitation to the U.S. solicitor general to provide an opinion on the petition signals the Court’s interest in possibly taking the case.

Author: Emily Ciecka Wilcheck

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