Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP

PETITIONER: Eric L. Thompson
RESPONDENT: North American Stainless, LP
LOCATION: North American Stainless

DOCKET NO.: 09-291
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

CITATION: 562 US 170 (2011)
GRANTED: Jun 29, 2010
ARGUED: Dec 07, 2010
DECIDED: Jan 24, 2011

ADVOCATES:
Eric Schnapper - for the petitioner
Leondra R. Kruger - Acting Principal Deputy Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the United States as amicus curiae, supporting the petitioner
Leigh Gross Latherow - for the respondent

Facts of the case

Eric Thompson and his fiancée-then-wife, Miriam Regalado, worked for North American Stainless, the owner and operator of a stainless steel manufacturing facility in Carroll County, KY. Regalado filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in September 2002, alleging that her supervisors discriminated against her based on her gender. On February 13, 2003, the EEOC notified North American Stainless of the charge. Slightly more than three weeks later, North American Stainless terminated Thompson's employment. Thompson filed a complaint, which alleged that he was fired in retaliation for Regalado's EEOC charge. Retaliating in that way, Thompson asserted, violated section 704(a) of Title VII, which forbids an employer to "discriminate against any of his employees ... because he has... made a charge ... under this title." The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky dismissed Thompson's complaint, holding that Title VII "does not permit third party retaliation claims." A divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld the lower court order. But the court of appeals granted the employer's petition for rehearing en banc. A splintered en banc court upheld the dismissal of Thompson's complaint.

Question

Does an employer violate an anti-retaliation provision of a federal civil rights statute by firing the fiancée of the employee who complained about discrimination? Can the fired employee sue, or only the employee who filed the complaint?

Media for Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - December 07, 2010 in Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - January 24, 2011 in Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP

Antonin Scalia:

This case is here on writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

Until 2003, both petitioner Eric Thompson and his fiancée, Miriam Regalado, were employees of respondent North American Stainless or NAS.

In February 2003, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission notified NAS that Regalado had filed a charge alleging sex discrimination.

Three weeks later, NAS fired Thompson.

Thompson sued NAS under Title VII claiming that the company had fired him in order to retaliate against Regalado, his fiancée, for filing her charge with the EEOC.

The District Court granted summary judgment to NAS concluding that Title VII does not permit third party retaliation claims.

The en banc Sixth Circuit affirmed, reasoning that because Thompson did not “engage in any statutorily protective activity, either on his own behalf or on behalf of Miriam Regalado, he is not included in the class of persons for whom Congress created a retaliation cause of action”.

In an opinion filed with the clerk today, we reversed the judgment of the Sixth Circuit.

Title VII makes it an unlawful employment practice for an employer to retaliate against an employee for filing a charge with the EEOC.

It grants a cause of action to “the person claiming to be aggrieved by the alleged unlawful employment practice”.

In the procedural posture of this case, we are required to assume that NAS fired Thompson in order to retaliate against Regalado for filing a charge of discrimination.

The case, therefore, presents two questions.

The first is whether NAS' firing of Thompson constituted unlawful retaliation.

We hold that if the facts alleged by Thompson are true, it did.

In a case called “Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railroad Company versus White”, we held that Title VII's anti-retaliation provision prohibits any employment -- 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 fiancée would be fired.

The second and more difficult question is whether Thompson may sue NAS for its alleged violation of Title VII.

The statute provides that “a civil action may be brought by the person claiming to be aggrieved”.

Thus, if Thompson is aggrieved within the meaning of the statute, he may sue.

In the case of ours from 1972 called “Trafficante versus Metropolitan Life Insurance Company”, we suggested in a dictum that the Title VII aggrievement requirement conferred a right to sue on all who met the minimal requirement for standing established by Article III of the Constitution.

We think that dictum was too expansive.

If any person injured in the Article III sense by a Title VIII violation could sue, absurd consequences would follow.

For example, a shareholder would be able to sue a company for firing a valuable employee for racially discriminatory reasons, so long as he could show that the value of his stock decreased as a consequence.

At the other extreme is the position urged by NAS that “person aggrieved” is a term of art that refers only to the employee who engaged in the protected activity.

We know of no other context in which the words carry this artificially narrow meaning, and if that is what Congress intended it would more naturally have said “person claiming to have been discriminated against” rather than person claiming to be aggrieved.

We see no basis in text or prior practice for limiting the latter phrase to the person who was the subject of unlawful retaliation.

In our view, there is a common usage of the term “person aggrieved” that avoids the extremity of equating it with Article III and yet is fully consistent with our application of the term in Trafficante.

The Administrative Procedure Act authorizes suit to challenge a federal agency by any “person adversely affected or aggrieved within the meaning of a relevant statute.”

We have held that this language establishes a regime under which a plaintiff may not sue unless he falls within the zone of interests sought to be protected by the statutory provision whose violation forms the legal basis for his complaint.

We hold that the term “aggrieved” in Title VII incorporates this test, enabling suit by any plaintiff with an interest sought to be protected by the statute, while excluding plaintiffs who might technically be injured in an Article III sense but whose interests are unrelated to the statutory prohibitions in Title VII.