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Supreme Court Hears Third-Party Retaliation Case

Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that could broaden the scope of federal antidiscrimination laws as they relate to retaliation in the workplace. In the case (Thompson v. North American Stainless), an employee is suing his employer for third-party retaliation.

In 1997, Eric Thompson was hired as an engineer by North American Stainless. In 2000, the company hired Miriam Regalado. Thompson began dating Regalado and became engaged to marry her in 2002. In September of that year, Regalado filed a sexual discrimination lawsuit against North American Stainless through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Three weeks after the company was notified of the lawsuit, it fired Thompson. Following the termination, Thompson filed his own lawsuit against the company. Thompson claimed that he was fired in retaliation for Regalado’s lawsuit.

In the subsequent litigation, the company argued that Thompson could not sue for retaliation because federal law does not prohibit firing an employee for the protected activity of his fiancee. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit agreed with the company, finding that Thompson had no legal grounds on which to sue. Thompson appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Last year, the Supreme Court ruled on a different aspect of third-party retaliation.

In that case (Crawford v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville), the Supreme Court found that an employee could pursue her lawsuit against her employer after being fired for giving evidence in a coworker’s sexual harassment suit. (A jury ultimately found in favor of Crawford and awarded her $1.5 million in damages and back pay.)

In the case, the city of Nashville, Tennessee, called Vicky Crawford, who had worked with the alleged harasser for several years, for an interview. Crawford told investigators that the accused had sexually harassed her and other employees. Two other employees gave similar evidence. (The city found that the accused had harassed his employees but did not take any disciplinary action against him. Instead, the city mandated sexual harassment training and education for the entire staff.)

After the sexual harassment investigation was complete, the city launched investigations of the three people who claimed that they had been harassed. All three were fired. Crawford was terminated after 30 years of service. She was accused of embezzlement and drug use, charges later found to be false.

Crawford filed a retaliation lawsuit against the city, claiming that she was fired in retaliation for her role in the sexual-harassment investigation. A federal court ruled that employees involved in internal investigations into wrongdoing are protected from adverse employment actions if they oppose that wrongdoing. Crawford, however, did not fit into that category, the federal court argued, because she did not bring a sexual harassment claim against Hughes nor did she pursue the matter during or after the investigation.

The Supreme Court disagreed, finding that Crawford did not need to bring a formal sexual harassment claim to be protected from retaliation.

In the written opinion of the case, the Court noted that “nothing in the statute requires a freakish rule protecting an employee who reports discrimination on her own initiative but not [protecting] one who reports the same discrimination in the same words when asked a question.”Crawford v Nashville.pdfThompson v. North American Stainless.pdf

♦ Photo byken mccown/Flickr