The Supreme Court provided greater clarity today regarding the extent to which an individual may be considered a “person aggrieved” within the meaning of Title VII. In Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP, an employee claimed that he was retaliated against when he was fired three weeks after his fiancée, who also worked for the same company, filed a sex discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The employer argued that if Title VII were to be extended to prohibit reprisals against third parties – such as a fiancé – then it would be difficult to draw a line to determine the types of relationships that are entitled to Title VII protection. While acknowledging the “force of this point,” the Court declined to create a categorical rule that third-party reprisals do not violate Title VII.
In determining whether the fired employee was a “person aggrieved” entitled to the protections of Title VII, the Court acknowledged that the standard in Title VII is akin to that of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). The APA “establishes a regime under which a plaintiff may not sue unless he falls within the zone of interests sought to be protected by the statutory provision whose violation forms the legal basis for his complaint.” In explaining how far the zone of interests extends, the Court stated:
“We expect that firing a close family member will almost always meet the [broad] Burlington standard, and inflicting a milder reprisal on a mere acquaintance will almost never do so, but beyond that we are reluctant to generalize.”
Accordingly, the zone of interests is not merely a recitation of the minimal Article III standing, which consists of an injury in fact caused by the defendant that can be remedied by the court. Since the fired employee was within the zone of interests, the Supreme Court reversed the Sixth Circuit and permitted him to bring a claim of retaliation against his employer.