Supreme Court limits employer ability to retaliate in job discrimination cases

WASHINGTON -"No," the Supreme Court said Jan. 24 to companies around the country, "if a worker complains about job discrimination, you can't fire her fiancé in retaliation." Retaliation against a third-party employee is illegal under federal law, the justices ruled, 8-0.

The case arose after Miriam Regolado filed a sex discrimination complaint in 2003 against North American Stainless with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The firm knew firing her was illegal, so it fired her fiancé, Eric Thompson, instead, three weeks later. Both have since left the company and married. He sued.

Lower courts flip-flopped, ruling first against Thompson, then for him, then against him again. The justices solved the issue. They said that under the equal employment law, firing Thompson is retaliation, too - even though Thompson wasn't the worker who suffered the on-the-job discrimination.

Anti-discrimination law bans firms from discriminating against workers "for engaging in protected conduct, without specifying the employer acts that are prohibited," Associate Justice Antonin Scalia said. "Based on...our understanding of the provision's purpose, we hold the anti-retaliation provision...is not limited to discriminatory actions that 'affect the terms and conditions of employment.'"

The anti-retaliation provision, Scalia added, bans "any employer action that well might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination. We think it obvious that a reasonable worker might be dissuaded from engaging in protected activity if she knew that her fiancé would be fired," Scalia said.

Even North American Stainless' attorney admitted Erickson's firing could be considered retaliation under another case the court decided years ago, Scalia noted. But the Kentucky firm asked where can retaliation start and stop - with fiancés, coworkers, incidental acquaintances? That puts a company "at risk any time it fires any employee who happens to have a connection to a different employee who filed a charge with the EEOC," North American Stainless claimed.

"Although we acknowledge the force of this point, we do not think it justifies a categorical rule that third-party reprisals do not violate" anti-discrimination law, Scalia responded. "We adopted a broad standard because (the) anti-retaliation provision is worded broadly. There is no basis for making an exception to it for third-party reprisals, and a preference for clear rules cannot justify departing from" the law's text.

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