They may be, according to the U.S. Supreme Court. In September, 2002, Miriam Regalado filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against North American Stainless that alleged sex discrimination by her superiors. At the time the complaint was filed, Ms. Regalado’s fiancé, Eric Thompson, was also employed by North American Stainless. About three weeks after North American Stainless received notice of Ms. Regalado’s complaint from the EEOC, Mr. Thompson was fired.
Subsequently Mr. Thompson filed his own complaint with the EEOC alleging the company was retaliating against him for Ms. Regalado’s claim, which he asserted is illegal under Title VII of the Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967. Title VII states that an employer cannot retaliate against an employee who has filed a discrimination claim by terminating his employment. Mr. Thompson’s complaint was dismissed by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky on the grounds that he was not protected by Title VII since he did not file the initial discrimination claim. The decision was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.
The case was sent to the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned the lower courts’ decision. The court used a “zone of interest” test to determine if Mr. Thompson had a right to file a claim under Title VII. Per the syllabus of the opinion of the Supreme Court:
“Applying that test here, Thompson falls within the zone of interests protected by Title VII. He was an employee of NAS, and Title VII’s purpose is to protect employees from their employers’ unlawful actions. Moreover, accepting the facts as alleged, Thompson is not an accidental victim of the retaliation. Hurting him was the unlawful act by which NAS punished Regalado. Thus, Thompson is a person aggrieved with standing to sue under Title VII.”
What this means is if the claim is true, Mr. Thompson was fired to punish Ms. Regalado for filing her sex discrimination suit against North American Stainless. The company was aware Ms. Regalado was protected by Title VII and sought to retaliate against her by firing her fiancé, whom they did not think was protected. The Supreme Court’s ruling allows Mr. Thompson to continue with the lawsuit, but does not decide whether or not he was unfairly terminated.
This decision by the Supreme Court opens up a whole new category of people who may be able to file claims under Title VII, namely those whose employment is negatively affected by a relative or even a friend filing a discrimination complaint with the EEOC. As a result, there may be a trend toward not hiring relatives within a company to avoid the possibility of these types of lawsuits. The Supreme Court did not specify who could file this type of suit, leaving the courts to consider every case individually.
If you would like more information regarding this ruling or any other Kentucky employment legal matter, please contact Miller & Falkner.