Thursday, February 21, 2013

A Twist on Workplace Romance -- Thompson v. North American Stainless

A week has passed since Valentine's Day.  Have you learned about any workplace romances?  Do they concern you?  They should.  They worry me.  What about those romances that are still hidden from public view?  I hope they worry you too.  Love and the workplace is a dangerous mix.  Let me tell you about a consequence you may not have considered -- a lawsuit for retaliation by a person who did not make the initial claim of discrimination. 

Miriam Regalado filed a sexual discrimination complaint against her employer, North American Stainless ("NAS").  Three weeks later NAS fired her fiance, Eric Thompson. 

Looking for consolation Eric ran to Miriam crying uncontrollably.  She hugged and kissed him, assuring Eric that he did nothing wrong and that the company was at fault.  Over the next few days Eric and Miriam plotted their revenge.  (OK, I just made up this part, but it could have happened!) 

Eric sued NAS for retaliation under Title VII.  He claimed he was fired because of Miriam's complaint.  The U.S. Supreme Court concluded that if true, the facts alleged constitute a viable claim of retaliation under Title VII. 

The retaliation provision under Title VII prohibits an employer from “discriminat[ing] against any of his employees” for engaging in protected conduct, without specifying the employer acts that are prohibited.  According to the Court, those employer acts include anything that “might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination."  The Court determined that a reasonable person would have been dissuaded to file a discrimination complaint if she knew her fiance would be fired. 

You're saying, "Yeah, I understand that.  Miriam could file a complaint for retaliation if she was fired."  But the court went beyong that and indicated that Eric could also file a complaint. 

The Court had to determine whether Eric was a "person aggrieved" by the actions of NAS.  Of course he was fired and therefore suffered adverse action.  However, he did not file the complaint of discrimination. 

But Title VII allows a person "claiming to be aggrieved" to file a civil lawsuit.  The Court held that if a person is within the "zone of interests" sought to be protected by Title VII, then that person is aggrieved and can bring a lawsuit. 

In this case, Title VII is intended to protect employees from discriminatory acts of employers.  As an employee of NAS, Eric was within the zone of interests and therefore eligible to file a lawsuit alleging retaliation even though he did not file the initial complaint of discrimination. 

California law also protects persons based on their association.  The law in this area -- associational discrimination and the zone of interests -- is complex.  It is not well-defiined.  It is another potential trap for the unwary. 

Don't you hate workplace love! 

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