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The Supreme Court today expanded protections for employees who file discrimination claims under federal law. The vote was unanimous. The case involved the question of retaliation for filing discrimination claims. And the court ruled that not only are workers protected from retaliation, so too are their family members and close relations.

That includes a fiancee, as NPR's legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG: 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 fiancee, Eric Thompson, was fired from his job as a metallurgical engineer. Thompson sued, claiming he had been illegally fired to punish his fiancee and to discourage others from making discrimination claims.

Now married, Thompson and Regalado said they had to move to Arkansas to find employment. Last month, they talked about his case when it was argued before the Supreme Court.

Ms. MIRIAM REGALADO (Plaintiff): This was, you know, sending a message to other employees. They're saying: Don't you dare, you know, do what she did. Otherwise, we'll take care of you like we did with her.

Mr. ERIC THOMPSON (Plaintiff): This is the worst part of the whole ordeal is the message and intimidation.

TOTENBERG: Thompson's suit was thrown out by the lower court, which ruled that federal law only permits the victim of discrimination to claim illegal retaliation.

But today, the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed unanimously. Writing for the court, Justice Antonin Scalia said that firing a fiancee 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 fiancee 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 said, Thompson is well within the zone of interest 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 right groups have been concerned about this case. 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 fiancee here 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 had already tripled over the last 17 years.

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

In today'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 on the circumstances.

All but one of the justices were on the bench this morning for the release of opinions. Justice Samuel Alito is in Hawaii, attending a legal conference. Just which of the remaining eight will show up for tomorrow'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 subsequent attempt to tone down the rhetoric may make attendance more appealing. Justice Scalia's plans are also unknown, but he is scheduled to give members of the Congressional Tea Party Caucus a closed-door briefing on the Constitution tonight.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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