In Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP, a decision released on January 24, 2011, the United States Supreme Court clarified that Title VII retaliation claims for adverse employment actions are not limited to the employee who files the original discrimination claim. Instead, anyone who is within the same “zone of interest” may be protected from an adverse employment action. In this particular case, a female employee filed a discrimination claim against her employer and shortly thereafter her fiancé, who was employed by the same company, was terminated from his position. The Supreme Court concluded that Thompson could pursue a claim under Title VII alleging that he was terminated in retaliation for his fiancée’s claim of sex discrimination.
The Court found that Title VII was intended to protect an employee from retaliation for pursuing his or her legal rights and reasoned that an employee may refrain from pursuing a claim if the employer can take adverse action against an individual close to the employee without suffering any consequences. The Court did not define which other individuals might be protected by such claims but indicated that the scope of the zone of interest would need to be developed on a case by case basis. The full text of the decision can be found here. This case serves as a reminder that employment decisions should be based on adequate documentation of a legitimate business reason for the decision. It is particularly important for employers to avoid basing employment decisions on an emotional reaction to an employee’s filing of a discrimination claim. Retaliation is the most frequent basis given for the filing of a discrimination claim and an employer may be found liable for retaliation even if the original discrimination claims had no merit.