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Supreme Court says fiance of complaining worker protected from retaliation

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 24, 2011; 10:22 PM

A unanimous Supreme Court ruled Monday that a man who was fired after his fiancee filed a complaint against their mutual employer may sue for illegal retaliation.

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The court said a third party such as Eric Thompson also is protected by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Thompson said he was fired just weeks after his fiancee, Miriam Regalado, filed a sex-discrimination claim against their employer, North American Stainless.

A federal appeals court said Thompson did not have the right to sue because the law protects only the person who filed the complaint.

But Justice Antonin Scalia said that reading was too narrow.

"Injuring him was the employer's intended means of harming Regalado," Scalia wrote. "Hurting him was the unlawful act by which the employer punished her. In those circumstances, we think Thompson well within the zone of interests sought to be protected by Title VII."

The vote was 8 to 0 because Justice Elena Kagan was recused. Kagan was the solicitor general last year when the Obama administration asked the court to take the case and reverse the opinion of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had given Thompson the go-ahead to file suit after his 2003 firing.

The decision fortified a trend at the court. Although the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business interests have an enviable record of success at the high court, one exception is in employment law, especially in retaliation cases.

Although there are some exceptions, the court headed by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. has generally been supportive of the right to sue by workers who claim discrimination and retaliation in their firings.

The law protects workers who file claims against their employers over adverse treatment. The question in the case was how that protection extended to those close to the complaining worker.

Scalia said Congress's broad wording in the law made it difficult for the court to come up with a "comprehensive set of clear rules" about who is covered. But he said it is "obvious that a reasonable worker might be dissuaded from" filing a complaint "if she knew that her fiance would be fired."

Regalado was unsuccessful in her sex-discrimination claims against the company. She and Thompson are now married and have a child. Monday's decision gives him a chance to return to court to try to prove his allegations. The company says Thompson was fired for performance issues.

The case is Thompson v. North American Stainless.

barnesb@washpost.com


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