The United States Supreme Court has unanimously held that an employee may bring Title VII retaliation claims where he or she is subject to an adverse employment action, because someone else “closely related” to the employee engaged in protected activity, such as filing a charge of discrimination or opposing discrimination.

In Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP (No. 09-291, Jan. 24, 2011), Eric Thompson and his fiancée, Miriam Regalado, were both employed by North American Stainless. Three weeks after receiving notice that Regalado had filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), the company fired Thompson for alleged performance-based problems. Thompson filed his own EEOC charge and later sued the company, claiming that he had been fired in retaliation for his fiancée’s EEOC charge. The district court granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment. A panel of judges from the Sixth Circuit initially reversed, but after a rehearing en banc, the full circuit affirmed, holding that Thompson was not protected by the anti-retaliation provisions of Title VII because he did not personally engage in protected activity on his own behalf or on behalf of his fiancée.

The Supreme Court reversed the Sixth Circuit’s decision. Finding that the anti-retaliation provisions of Title VII must be construed broadly to encompass any employer action that might dissuade a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination, the Court said it was “obvious that a reasonable worker might be dissuaded from engaging in protected activity if she knew that her fiancé would be fired.”

Although the Court refused to identify a fixed class of relationships for which third-party reprisals are unlawful, it noted that firing a close family member will almost always rise to that level, “while a milder reprisal on a mere acquaintance will almost never do so.”

The Court also rejected the employer’s argument that Thompson was not, in the words of Title VII, a “person aggrieved” under that law. The Court applied the “zone of interests” test, which allows suit by any plaintiff “with an interest ‘arguably [sought] to be protected by the statutes.’” The Court concluded that Thompson fell within the zone of interest protected by Title VII because that statute is intended to protect employees, such as Thompson, from unlawful acts by their employers.

Though this ruling does not establish a bright-line test for third-party retaliation claims, employers must take notice. When deciding to take an adverse action against an employee, an employer must take care not only when the employee has engaged in protected activity himself or herself, but also where he or she is closely associated with someone else who has.