In a rare expansion of employee rights from the U.S. Supreme Court, a new category of employees can sue an employer for retaliation, namely an employee who is within the “zone of interest.” Thompson v. North American Stainless, No. 09-291, 131 S. Ct. 863 (2011). (Unanimous decision; Kagen did not participate; Scalia opinion). Thompson filed a claim of retaliation against his employer because his employer allegedly fired him because his fiancé, also an employee, filed a complaint against the employer. Thompson and his fiancé, Miriam Regaldo, were employees of North American Stainless (NAS). Regaldo filed a sex discrimination claim against NAS with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Three weeks after EEOC notified NAS of the complaint, NAS fired Thompson. Thompson brought suit under Title VII alleging retaliation. Any person “claiming to be aggrieved” may bring suit under Title VII. The “zone of interest” likely includes a close family member, but not a mere acquaintance.

The trial court and court of appeals rejected his claim, stating that Title VII did not allow him to sue because he had not engaged in any protected activity. The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed and said Thompson had standing to sue because he is the type of person Title VII intends to protect. A reasonable worker might be deterred from engaging in protected conduct if they learn that their spouse might be fired if they did. Thompson was within the “zone of interest” Title VII sought to protect because Title VII seeks to protect employees from unlawful acts.

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Katherine Charlton