Company Found to Retaliate Against Fiance of Employee Who Claimed Discrimination
The Supreme Court found an employer can illegally retaliate against the fiancé of an employee who files a discrimination charge. This is a reminder to employers to consider the relationships between their employees before taking adverse employment action after a discrimination charge is filed.
In this case, Miriam, an employee, was fired and subsequently brought a claim of sex discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Shortly after the Company learned of the pending charge, it fired Miriam’s fiancé, who also worked at the Company. The Company claimed it fired the fiancé for poor performance and for disparaging the Company’s management in an office memo. The fiancé then brought suit under Title VII, claiming the Company retaliated against him because his fiancée filed an EEOC charge.
The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals (covering Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio and Michigan) found the fiancé had no retaliation claim because he was not the one who originally complained of discrimination. However, the Supreme Court disagreed. The test for retaliation is whether the action would have “dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a discrimination charge.” Here, the Court answered in the affirmative, holding employees would be dissuaded from reporting discrimination if they knew their fiancé might be fired. The Court also ruled the fiancé has a separate cause of action under Title VII for retaliation because Title VII was meant to protect employees like him. It was not clear from the Court’s opinion how close a relationship two employees would need to have before they considered the non-complainant to have a cause of action for retaliation. The Court opined that mere acquaintances would not qualify for such protections, but a person’s spouse or fiancé probably would.
This decision is extremely employee-friendly. Employers now need to be even more vigilant in making adverse employment decisions after they are notified of a charge pending with the EEOC. As is always the case, the best way to avoid discrimination charges, is to have a full record of proper discipline. However, if the paper file is weak, the likelihood of a successful charge is now even greater.
Brody and Associates regularly provides counsel on civil rights issues and employment laws in general. If we can be of assistance in this area, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or 203.965.0560.