Court Rules Fired Fiance Can Claim Retaliation

The U.S. Supreme Court has expanded protections for employees who file discrimination claims under federal law. By a unanimous vote, the court ruled that not only are workers themselves protected from retaliation when they file such claims, so too are their family members and close relations, such as a fiance.

Eric Thompson and Miriam Regalado met and became engaged while working at North American Stainless steel in Kentucky. She was a female supervisor — a rarity in the company — and she says she was never accepted by her boss. She eventually filed a sex discrimination claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, contending that she was not receiving the same raises as her male counterparts. Three weeks after the company was notified of the charge, Regalado's fiance was fired from his job as a metallurgical engineer.

The fiance sued, claiming he had been illegally fired to punish Regalado and to discourage others from making discrimination claims. Now married, Thompson and Regalado said they had had to move to Arkansas to find employment.

"This was sending a message," Regalado said. "They're saying to other employees, 'Don't you dare do what she did. Otherwise, we'll take care of you like we did with her.' "

Her fiance's suit was thrown out by the lower courts, which ruled that federal law only permits the victim of discrimination to claim illegal retaliation. But on Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed.

The Court's Decision

Writing for the unanimous court, Justice Antonin Scalia said that firing a fiance clearly could constitute illegal retaliation. "We think it obvious," he said, "that a reasonable worker might be dissuaded" from filing a discrimination claim "if she knew that her fiance would be fired."

"If the facts here are as alleged," wrote Scalia, then Thompson is "not an accidental victim of retaliation — not collateral damage. ... To the contrary, injuring him was the employer's intended means of harming Regalado." In those circumstances, Scalia added, "Thompson is well within the zone of interests sought to be protected by the federal anti-discrimination law."

The case now returns to the lower courts, where it will either be tried before a jury or settled out of court.

Both business interests and civil rights groups have been concerned about the case and its implications. Civil rights lawyers were worried that if they lost, retaliation against family members would mushroom and become a new intimidation tactic by employers.

Business interests were worried that a ruling for the fiance would open the floodgates of retaliation litigation. The Chamber of Commerce filed a brief saying that the number of retaliation claims filed with the EEOC has tripled over the past 17 years.

Indeed, retaliation claims are growing. In 2010, they accounted for more than one-third of all discrimination claims filed with the EEOC. But only a tiny minority involved individuals who were not themselves the original victims of discrimination.

In Monday's ruling, the court said there are limits to who can claim illegal retaliation.

"We expect that firing a close family member will almost always meet the test," the court said. And "inflicting a milder reprisal on a mere acquaintance will almost never do so."

But beyond that, the justices said, they were "reluctant to generalize" because "the significance of any given act of retaliation will often depend upon the circumstances."

The Justices And The State Of The Union

All but one of the justices were on the bench Monday morning for the release of opinions. Justice Samuel Alito is in Hawaii attending a legal conference. Which of the remaining eight will show up for Tuesday's State of the Union address is a subject of much speculation.

Chief Justice John Roberts last year indicated his displeasure at having to sit stone-faced amid the partisan whooping and hollering at the State of the Union. And most observers had anticipated that he would not attend. But the Tucson shootings and the attempt to tone down the rhetoric may make attendance more appealing.

Then there is Scalia's appearance before the Tea Party Caucus on Monday night. Scalia, who has appeared before groups both liberal and conservative, agreed to give the Tea Partiers a closed-door briefing on the Constitution. It is unknown whether he will attend the State of the Union address.

Correction Jan. 27, 2011

A previous headline on this story inaccurately said the Supreme Court ruled that North American Stainless had retaliated against an employee whose fiancee filed a discrimination claim. The court actually ruled that the former employee has standing to sue the company for retaliation.

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