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Supreme Court Stays Flexible: No Steely Rigidity in Decision of Thompson v. North American Stainless

Posted by Frank Steinberg | Jan 24, 2011 | 0 Comments

This post's title makes no sense unless we assume that the defendant North American Stainless is in the business of making or selling stainless steel.  For the sake of expedition I will assume that it is so.

Today the US Supreme Court, through Justice Scalia, ruled on a retaliation and Title VII case, Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP.  The facts were simple.

Thompson and his fiance, Miriam Regalado, worked for NAS.  Regalado filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC, and three weeks later NAS fired Thompson.  Thompson then sued NAS under Title VII, claiming that he was fired in retaliation for Regalado's filing of her complaint.

The trial court threw out Thompson's case, and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed on the theory that Title VII did not apply to Thompson since he engaged in no protected activity.  In essence, the lower courts held that a retaliation claim is not available to someone who suffers an adverse employment action because of protected activity engaged in by someone else.

The Supreme Court made short work of that argument, holding that "Title VII's antiretaliation provision must be construed to cover a broad range of employer conduct."  The Court  acknowledged that lines will have to be drawn in future cases, but that Thompson's status as Regalado's fiance was close enough to raise an inference that NAS acted against him because Regalado had complained about NAS.  The rule has limits, according to the Court.  Retaliation against a fiance triggers liability, while retaliation for action taken by a mere acquaintance of the plaintiff would not.  And there's a lot of gray area in between.  But the Court chose to remain flexible (hence the title!) and let the trial courts decide the issue on the facts of each case. 

While employers will not be happy with this decision, it is a sensible and straightforward case of statutory construction — the Court doing what a court is supposed to do.  Employers should be able to deal with the ramifications of Thompson v. NAS with reasonable predictability if they make their personnel decisions in a similarly sensible way.

About the Author

Frank Steinberg

Frank is the founder and principal of Steinberg Law, LLC. A Jersey boy born and bred, he focuses on employment litigation and counseling, business litigation,  and aviation law. Following law school and a clerkship in the federal district court Frank spent his early career with large litigation ...

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