Jottings By An Employer's Lawyer

Monday, January 24, 2011

Retaliation in the Supreme Court - Danger Zone for Employers

If there is one area of Supreme Court jurisprudence that employees can certainly not complain about it is the law of retaliation Today's decision in Thompson v. North American Stainless (S.Ct. 1/24/11) certainly does nothing to change that. A unaminous Court (with Justice Kagan not sitting) held that an employee who had been fired for his fiancee's protected activity was also protected by Title VII.

If I had any hope for an employer favorable decision, I had thought it would come from the strict constructionists, who could read the language of Title VII:
because he has opposed any practice made an unlawful employment practice by this subchapter, or because he has made a charge, testified, assisted, or participated in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing under this subchapter.
to mean that Congress had said it was the individual who actually engaged in the protected activity that was protected, since it did not read because "he, or someone he is close to" had done certain acts. Which is what the en banc 6th Circuit had done.

I thought that they might have also noted that Congress knows how to expand the zone when it wishes, e.g. the Americans with Disabilities Act which contains a specific provision for association type discrimination where of course Title VII does not.

But when I saw today's opinion was authored by Justice Scalia, I knew it was not to be.

As of now, employers have an unclear line (conceded by Justice Scalia) about what relationship will be considered sufficient to extend one employee's concerted activity to another:
Applying the Burlington standard to third-party reprisals, NAS argues will place the employer at risk any time it fires any employee who happens to have a connection to a different employee who filed a charge with the EEOC.
Although we acknowledge the force of this point, we do not think it justifies a categorical rule that third-party reprisals do not violate Title VII. As explained above, we adopted a broad standard in Burlington because Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision is worded broadly. We think there is no textual basis for making an exception to it for third-party reprisals, and a preference for clear rules cannot justify departing from statutory text.
The easy way to look at today's decision is that the zone of protected activity is now expanded beyond the protection of the one who engages in the activity. Just how far and under what circumstances that zone will reach will be fought out in the courts. A battle that no doubt starts today.
The guidelines, to the extent we have them are this:
We must also decline to identify a fixed class of relationships for which third-party reprisals are unlawful. We expect that firing a close family member will almost always meet the Burlington standard, and inflicting a milder reprisal on a mere acquaintance will almost never do so, but beyond that we are reluctant to generalize. As we explained in Burlington,  “the significance of any given act of retaliation will often depend upon the particular circumstances.” Given the broad statutorytext and the variety of workplace contexts in which retaliation may occur, Title VII’s antiretaliation provision is simply not reducible to a comprehensive set of clear rules. We emphasize, however, that “the provision’s standard for judging harm must be objective,” so as to “avoi[d] theuncertainties and unfair discrepancies that can plague ajudicial effort to determine a plaintiff’s unusual subjective feelings.”
I am afraid those 'guidelines' leave a lot of "filling in" for the lower courts to do.  
So I was right -- the "strict constructionist view" controlled, just not the way I had hoped. Which may just show that even when one is "strictly construing" legislative wording, it is possible for judges to "make" not just "interpret" the law. Imagine that.


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