Vigilant Blog

News, trends and analysis in employment law, HR, safety & workers' comp

Jan 26, 2011

Supreme Court says firing of fiancé unlawful


We all know its illegal to retaliate against an employee for filing a discrimination claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. But what if the company doesnt do anything to the employee and instead fires her fianc? The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled such an action is illegal, because it might well discourage a reasonable worker from complaining of discrimination. The Court went on to say that the fired fianc could sue for retaliation, on the theory that he was aggrieved by the companys actions and, as an employee, he was within the zone of interests protected by Title VII. Based on the facts alleged, the company fired him to punish the woman who complained of discrimination (Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP, US, Jan. 24, 2011).

Tips: This case highlights a new trap for the unwary employer in the aftermath of an employment discrimination complaint. Not only must you ensure that the person who filed the complaint isnt subject to personal retaliation, but you must also ensure that he or she doesnt experience retaliation through your actions against others. Now, if you discipline or fire someone who has a close relationship with the original complaining employee, you may be subject to a claim of retaliation.

How close is close? The Court refused to give a clear standard, saying that courts will have to make a fact-specific inquiry in each case to determine whether an employers actions would reasonably dissuade others from filing discrimination complaints. They wrote, [w]e expect that firing a close family member will almost always meet the standard, and inflicting a milder reprisal on a mere acquaintance will almost never do so, but beyond that we are reluctant to generalize. As an employer, you should expect that once a discrimination complaint is filed, your subsequent interactions with the complaining employees friends and family will be closely scrutinized. If you receive a complaint of discrimination, contact your Vigilant staff representative immediately for assistance with investigating and responding.

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