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Retaliation by Association

Last January, the U.S. Supreme Court expanded those protected under the retaliation provisions of Title VII and included employees who have a close family relationship to a person who has made a complaint of discrimination.  Previously, only those persons who actually made or supported a complaint were protected by law.  However, in Thompson v. North American Stainless, the Supreme Court unanimously held that it is an unlawful employment practice to fire or otherwise retaliate against an employee's "close family member" who has filed claim of discrimination.  In Thompson, two employees were engaged to one another.  The female co-worker filed a claim of discrimination against her supervisors and subsequently, the male was fired.  The male filed a claim of retaliation under Title VII claiming that his termination was in retaliation for his fiance's discrimination complaint. While the Sixth Circuit held that he did not state a claim under the statute as one who "engaged in protected activity," the U.S. Supreme Court reversed holding that the anti-retaliation provisions protect conduct that may disuade a worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.  As applied in this case, the Court determined that the female co-worker may have been disuaded from making a claim of discrimination if she knew that her fiance could be fired as a result.  This case gives a cause of action to the "close family member" for retaliation and opens employers up to additional liability.

Employers should note that the Supreme Court failed to define "close family member" leaving that phrase to be determined on a case-by-case basis.  What is interesting about this is whether the courts will use this case to further expand the retaliation provisions to include co-workers who are merely close friends.  Now, when employers are deciding to take an adverse employment action against any employee, they must now consider whether that employee is "closely related" to another individual who has made a claim of discrimination with the company.

 Benjamin L. Riddle  is an associate in the Louisville, Kentucky office. Mr. Riddle is a member of the firm’s Litigation team, where he focuses his practice on employment law, commercial disputes and personal injury matters. He graduated from Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business in 2000 and obtained his J.D. from Indiana University, Bloomington in 2003. He is a member of the Illinois, Louisville and Kentucky Bar Associations and is admitted to practice in the U.S. District Courts in the Northern District of Illinois and the Eastern and Western Districts of Kentucky and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. Mr. Riddle can be reached at (502) 327-5400, ext. 2305 or briddle@mmlk.com

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