Supreme Court Expands Who Can Sue Under Federal Employment Laws

January 28, 2011

This week, the Supreme Court unanimously declared that employees can share certain protections under employment laws with other employees based on their close relationship and, therefore, file suit based on that close relationship.  In Thompson v. North American Stainless, the plaintiff was terminated shortly after his fiancée filed a complaint of sex discrimination against the employer.  The lower courts had ruled that the plaintiff could not sue for retaliation because it was his fiancée, and not him, who filed the complaint or engaged in the protected activity.  The Supreme Court, however, took a different approach ruling that Title VII protections are not limited solely to the employee engaging in the protected activity, but that it permitted a person "aggrieved" to file suit.  The adoption of this broad “aggrieved person” standard will likely not be limited to Title VII alone.  Most other federal employment discrimination laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act use the same language and it is reasonable to expect the federal courts to apply this interpretation to the same words.  Meanwhile, in the wake of the Court's decision, there is considerable uncertainty over the degree of how closely related or associated an individual must be to bring a third-party retaliation claim.  Unfortunately, the Court provided vague guidance by concluding that “we expect that firing a close family member will almost always meet the … standard, and inflicting a milder reprisal on a mere acquaintance will almost never do so, but beyond that we are reluctant to generalize.”