(Photo: Franz Jantzen)

NU ONLINE NEWS SERVICE

A company may not retaliate against an employee by firing a third party, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled recently, giving employees more backing to sue for retaliation.

In the case Thompson vs. North American Stainless, 09-291, justices ruled unanimously that third parties are protected by Title VII—the Civil Rights Act of 2964, amended, prohibiting an employer from discriminating against an employee based on the employee’s race, color, national origin, gender, or religion—from retaliation by their employers.

Until 2003, both petitioner Eric Thompson and his fiancée Miriam Regalado were employees of North American Stainless (NAS), according to court papers. In February 2003, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission notified NAS that Ms. Regalado had filed a charge against her supervisor alleging sexual discrimination. Three weeks later, NAS fired Mr. Thompson.

Mr. Thompson then filed a charge with the EEOC, the papers said. After conciliation efforts proved unsuccessful, he sued NAS in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky under Title VII.

Mr. Thompson, the ruling said, may continue the lawsuit against his employer.

Gerald L. Maatman Jr., a partner and co-chair of the class-action defense group at Seyfarth Shaw in Chicago, wrote NU Online News Service in an e-mail that the ruling in Thompson underscores the Supreme Court’s commitment to interpreting Title VII anti-retaliation protections expansively in favor of workers.

The ruling, he said, reflects the Supreme Court’s position that the process of anti-discrimination complaint resolution should be employee-friendly.

Because the test of Title VII anti-retaliation protection formulated in Thompson is fact-and-circumstances driven, he noted, it is a “door opening” ruling for workers, opening “the courthouse doors to more claims” and making it “more difficult for employers to dispose of such claims.”

The effect of the ruling, Mr. Maatman said, is to raise the stakes for human resources professionals and corporate counsel involved in personnel situations from which claims of retaliation may grow.

“By adopting a ‘zone of interests’ test to determine [when] the anti-retaliation provision ‘kicks in,’ operating within the ‘zone of interests’ is now a challenge fraught with risk for companies,” he said.