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Ask The Lawyer By: Daniel A. Gwinn, Esq.

| September 10, 2018

MY FIANCEE COMPLAINED, BUT I WAS THE ONE WHO WAS FIRED!

QUESTION: My fiancée and I work for the same company. Last year she complained to management about a co-worker who had been harassing her — he touched her when she walked by his desk and talked about women in a really offensive way in her presence. The company did not discipline the guy, and he kept harassing her. It got so bad, she had to quit. After she left, she filed a charge against the company with the EEOC. Two weeks ago, I was called in by my supervisor. He said the company was making some changes, and I was laid off. As far as I know, no one else has been terminated. I’m pretty sure they laid me off because my fiancée filed a charge against them. Do I have any rights here?

ANSWER: Like your fiancée, you have the right to bring a lawsuit. In Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP, 562 US 170 (2011), the Supreme Court recognized that a person who “falls ‘within the zone of interests’ sought to be protected” by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act may bring a lawsuit, even if he or she did not engage in any protected conduct and does not belong to any of Title VII’s protected categories — race, sex, color, religion, or national origin.

In Thompson, as in your case, the plaintiff had been fired after his fiancée filed a charge against their common employer. When the plaintiff, Thompson, tried to sue the employer, his claim was initially rejected by the courts, which held that Title VII does not permit “third party retaliation claims.” Title VII makes it illegal for an employer to discriminate against an employee who has engaged in “protected activity” and who has filed (or threatened to file) a charge with the EEOC. Since Thompson didn’t engage in any “protected activity” on his own behalf or that of his fiancée, the district court reasoned he was not included “in the class of persons for whom Congress created a retaliation cause of action.” 567 F.3d 804 (2009).

The Supreme Court ruled that analysis fell short: The anti-retaliation provisions of Title VII prohibit any employer action that might dissuade a worker from bringing a charge of discrimination. Justice Scalia, writing for the Court, stated: “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.” But the question remained whether Thompson, who was not being directly retaliated against, could bring a civil suit on his own behalf.

The issue was whether Thompson was a “person aggrieved.” The law gives the right to sue to a “person aggrieved” by the employer’s conduct. Thompson’s employer argued that allowing anyone who is harmed — “aggrieved” — by an employer’s discriminatory action to bring suit would allow people who were only tangentially harmed to sue. For example, a shareholder might be “aggrieved” by an employer’s discriminatory conduct if it resulted in a decrease in the value of his stock. The only person who should be allowed to sue for retaliation, the employer argued, was the person who filed the charge of discrimination.

The Supreme Court agreed that a very broad reading of “person aggrieved” would be absurd, but held that a very narrow reading would also be wrong. If the person who was harmed had an interest that the statute sought to protect, that is, was in the “zone of interests” of the statute, he or she should be allowed to bring suit.

Since the purpose of Title VII is to protect employees from their employer’s unlawful actions, Thompson — as an employee of the firm that discriminated against his fiancée and then retaliated against her by firing him — was in the zone of interest of Title VII. As Justice Scalia described it, Thompson was not “collateral damage … of the employer’s unlawful act. To the contrary, injuring him was the employer’s intended means of harming [his fiancée]. Hurting him was the unlawful act by which the employer punished her.” The plaintiff was therefore a “person aggrieved” with standing to sue.

Long story short: If you were laid off in retaliation for your fiancée’s complaint, you have the right to sue. You may wish to consult with an attorney to discuss the strengths of your case.

The lawyers at GWINN LEGAL PLLC are experienced attorneys and are happy to answer your questions. Give us a call for a free initial telephone consultation about your legal needs. For consideration of your questions in our web column, please submit your inquiry on the “Contact Us” page of our website at www.gwinnlegal.com.

Information provided on “Ask the Lawyer” is current as of the date of publication. Laws and their interpretation are subject to change. The material provided through “Ask the Lawyer” is informational only; it should not be considered legal advice. Submitting a question to “Ask the Lawyer” does not create an attorney-client relationship between the person submitting the question and GWINN LEGAL PLLC. To view previous columns, please visit our website.

ASK THE LAWYER
By: Daniel A. Gwinn, Esq.

Attorney and Counselor at Law
GWINN LEGAL PLLC
901 Wilshire Drive, Suite 550
Troy, MI 48084
(248) 247-3300
(248) 247-3310 facsimile
daniel@gwinnlegal.com
www.gwinnlegal.com

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