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Unanimous Supreme Court Adopts Broad Reading Of Title VII Retaliation Provision

Published by on January 25, 2011

The U.S. Supreme Court continued its expansive interpretation of the anti-retaliation provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with its January 24 decision in Thompson v. North American Stainless.  The Court held that the firing of a worker because his fiance had filed a charge of discrimination fell within the scope of the statute’s […]

The U.S. Supreme Court continued its expansive interpretation of the anti-retaliation provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with its January 24 decision in Thompson v. North American Stainless.  The Court held that the firing of a worker because his fiance had filed a charge of discrimination fell within the scope of the statute’s protection.  The Court’s opinion can be found here.  More after the break.

The Court first had little trouble finding that the act complained of — the firing of a worker because his fiance filed a charge of discrimination — was “retaliatory” under Title VII.  Applying its recent decision in Burlington Northern v. White (2006), the Court concluded that “a reasonable worker might be dissuaded from engaging in protected activity if she knew that her fiancé would be fired.” 

The Court declined to adopt a categorical rule that third-party reprisals do not violate Title VII.  Leaving open a vast sea of future litigation over the issue, the Court observed that they “decline[d] to identify a fixed class of relationships for which third-party reprisals are unlawful. We expect that firing a close family member will almost always meet the Burlington standard, and inflicting a milder reprisal on a mere acquaintance will almost never do so, but beyond that we are reluctant to generalize.”

The Court next interpreted the “person aggrieved” language in Title VII in similar fashion to the Administrative Procedure Act:  “a plaintiff may not sue unless he ‘falls within the ‘zone of interests’ sought to be protected by the statutory provision whose violation forms the legal basis for his complaint.’ “

The official syllabus of the Court’s opinion is as follows: 

Held:

1. If the facts Thompson alleges are true, his firing by NAS constituted unlawful retaliation. Title VII’s antiretaliation provision mustbe construed to cover a broad range of employer conduct. Burlington v. White, 548 U. S. 53. It prohibits any employer action that ” ‘well might have “dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a [discrimination] charge,” ’” id., at 68. That test must be applied in an objective fashion, to “avoi[d] the uncertainties and unfair discrepancies that can plague a judicial effort to determine a plaintiff’s unusual subjective feelings.” Id., at 68–69. A reasonable worker obviously might be dissuaded from engaging in protected activity if she knew that her fiancé would be fired. Pp. 2–4.

N. & S. F. R. Co.

2. Title VII grants Thompson a cause of action. Pp. 4–7. 2 THOMPSON v. NORTH AMERICAN STAINLESS, LP Syllabus

(a) For Title VII standing purposes, the term “person aggrieved” must be construed more narrowly than the outer boundaries of Article III. Dictum in Trafficante v. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co., 409 U. S. 205, suggesting that Title VII’s aggrievement requirement reaches asfar as Article III permits, is too expansive and the Court declines tofollow it. At the other extreme, limiting “person aggrieved” to the person who was the subject of unlawful retaliation is an artificiallynarrow reading. A common usage of the term “person aggrieved” avoids both of these extremes. The Administrative Procedure Act, which authorizes suit to challenge a federal agency by any “person. . . adversely affected or aggrieved . . . within the meaning of a relevant statute,” 5 U. S. C. §702, establishes a regime under which a plaintiff may not sue unless he “falls within the ‘zone of interests’sought to be protected by the statutory provision whose violationforms the legal basis for his complaint,” Lujan v. National Wildlife Federation, 497 U. S. 871, 883. Title VII’s term “aggrieved” incorporates that test, enabling suit by any plaintiff with an interest ” ‘arguably [sought] to be protected’ by the statutes,” National Credit Union Admin. v. First Nat. Bank & Trust Co., 522 U. S. 479, 495, while excluding plaintiffs who might technically be injured in an Article IIIsense but whose interests are unrelated to Title VII’s statutory prohibitions. Pp. 4–7.

(b) Applying that test here, Thompson falls within the zone of interests protected by Title VII. He was an employee of NAS, and TitleVII’s purpose is to protect employees from their employers’ unlawful actions. Moreover, accepting the facts as alleged, Thompson is not anaccidental victim of the retaliation. Hurting him was the unlawful act by which NAS punished Regalado. Thus, Thompson is a personaggrieved with standing to sue under Title VII. P. 7.

567 F. 3d 804, reversed and remanded.

SCALIA, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which all otherMembers joined, except KAGAN, J., who took no part in the consideration or decision of the case. GINSBURG, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which BREYER, J., joined.

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