Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Split Created: Does Title VII Permit Third Party Retaliation Claims?

Per Thompson v. N. Am. Stainless, LP, 2008 WL 834005 (6th Cir. Mar. 31, 2008)

Plaintiff Eric Thompson and his wife, Miriam Regalado met while both worked for North American Stainless. Two years into her employment, Regalado filed a claim of gender-discrimination with the EEOC. Three weeks after the EEOC notified North American Stainless of the complaint, Thompson, whose engagement to Regalado was common knowledge, was fired. Thompson asserts that this constituted impermissible retaliation; North American states that Thompson was fired for performance reasons. Thompson sued for violation of Title VII, and the district court granted summary judgment for North American because Thompson failed to state a claim under the anti-retaliation provision of Title VII.

The anti-retaliation provision forbids employers from discriminating against any of his employees because, in relevant part, “he has made a charge, testified, assisted, or participated in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing under this subchapter.” The issue in this case is that Thompson did not make or participate the charge; his fiancĂ©e/wife, Regalado, did. The question is whether the protections of the statute extend beyond the plain language of the section.

“Specifically, does Title VII prohibit employers from taking retaliatory action against employees not directly involved in protected activity, but who are so closely related to or associated with those who are directly involved, that it is clear that the protected activity motivated the employer's action? As such conduct would undermine the purposes of Title VII, we hold that such retaliatory action is prohibited.” *3. In particular, the Sixth Circuit notes that the EEOC Compliance Manual specifically prohibits retaliation against closely-related third parties. *4.

In so holding, this divided panel creates a split from the other circuits to have considered the question. The CAs 3,5,8 all have rejected closely related third party retaliation claims, holding that the plain language of the statute trumps the risk that its purposes would be undermined. After discussing these cases, the dissent continues to note that the EEOC manual is entitled to no deference when the meaning of the statutory text is plain. On the other hand, the CAs 7 and 11 have permitted, in other circumstances, extra-textual readings of the retaliation provisions in to further to the goals of Title VII. This case strikes me as a prime candidate for review, either en banc or by the Court.

Interestingly, previous Sixth Circuit precedent provided persuasive authority for the CA2’s conclusion today in Holcomb v. Iona College – additional coverage from How Appealing and Wait a Second! – that “an employer may violate Title VII if it takes action against an employee because of the employee's association with a person of another race.” *2. This proposition has been upheld by every circuit to have considered the issue (CAs 5,6,11 and now 2) despite the statutory language requiring the discrimination to be “because of such individual’s race.” (emphasis added). The courts have justified their conclusion because, if the discrimination is because of the association with someone of another race, the employee’s own race does play a role – it defines what another race is. I doubt that these broad readings of the statutory text must stand or fall together, given the textual linkage in the CA2’s justification, but the correlation is interesting.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The author may want to check the subsequent history on this decision. Rehearing en banc, opinion vacated July 28, 2008.