Sixth Circuit Protects Employers From Associational Retaliation Claims

Only a person who has personally engaged in a protected activity may bring a retaliation claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, according to the Sixth Circuit’s recent decision in Thompson v. North American Stainless, No. 07-5040 (6th Cir. June 5, 2009). Under Title VII, employers are prohibited from retaliating against an employee who has opposed an unlawful employment practice or who has made a charge, testified, assisted or participated in an investigation, proceeding or hearing.

In Thompson, the plaintiff Eric Thompson claimed that he was fired as a result of his fiancé’s filing of an EEOC charge against their mutual employer.  The EEOC issued a probable cause finding on Mr. Thompson’s own charge; however, the Sixth Circuit held definitively that the plain language of Title VII does not extend to associational retaliation claims. In so holding, the Sixth Circuit has protected employers from retaliation claims by friends, relatives, and close associates of the discrimination claimant.

Nevertheless, managers and supervisors must be trained on Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision, as those claims are common and costly. We consider it a critical component of our harassment, discrimination and performance management training programs.