The Evolving Threat of Retaliation Claims

February 7, 2011, 2:40 PM

As the number of retaliation charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) each year continues to rise (see EEOC Statistic Charges on the Rise), the U.S. Supreme Court has issued a decision that expands the definition of who may file retaliation lawsuits.

In that case, North American Stainless ("NAS") employed Eric Thompson and Miriam Regaldo, who were engaged to be married. Ms. Regaldo filed a Charge of Discrimination against NAS with the EEOC. Three weeks later, NAS fired Mr. Thompson. At issue before the Supreme Court, among other things, was whether Mr. Thompson could claim that his discharge constituted actionable retaliation under Title VII for Ms. Regaldo's Charge of Discrimination. The Supreme Court answered in the affirmative, holding that Mr. Thompson was "within the zone of interest protected by Title VII" when Ms. Regaldo filed her Charge of Discrimination.

While this fact pattern may be rare, this case is a good reminder that employers must take great care to avoid claims of retaliation. In the Burlington Northern case from 2006, the Supreme Court instructed employers that Title VII's anti-retaliation provision must be construed to cover a broad range of employer conduct. With this most recent decision, the Supreme Court has taken another step to protect the "zone of interest" surrounding the complaining employee.

With these cases and statistics in mind, the lesson is clear: employers should have dedicated and coordinated procedures for responding to complaints of discrimination, so as to avoid any subsequent claims of retaliation. --David J. Sullivan