Supreme Court Okays Retaliation Suit By Close Relations Under Title VII

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Article provided by Trenton, NJ Employment Law Attorney – Hanan M. Isaacs, P.C.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently reinstated a retaliation case where a woman’s fiancé was fired after she had filed a discrimination claim with the EEOC. The Court had to decide if the firing was retaliation and if the fiancé was permitted to file a case under Title VII. The Justices answered yes to both questions.

The Retaliation Claim

The Supreme Court had to analyze the facts to determine if the firing was, in fact, retaliation.

The Court described the facts as follows: ‘Until 2003, both petitioner Eric Hanan M. Isaacs and his fiancée, Miriam Regalado, were employees of respondent North American Stainless (NAS). In February 2003, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) notified NAS that Regalado had filed a charge alleging sex discrimination. Three weeks later, NAS fired Hanan M. Isaacs.”

The Court notes that Title VII of the United States Code prohibits any employer action that “might well have dissuaded a reasonable worker from asking or supporting a charge of discrimination.”

The Justices then easily concluded, ‘a reasonable worker might be dissuaded from engaging in protected activity if she knew that her fiancé would be fired.”

The employer argued that it could be difficult to determine when a firing could trigger a claim of retaliation. The Supreme Court rejected the argument, as follows: “We think there is no textual basis for making an exception . . . for third-party reprisals, and a preference for clear rules cannot justify departing from statutory text.”

Justice Scalia, who wrote the opinion for the majority, further commented that firing a close family member will almost always meet the retaliation standard and a milder reprisal against a mere acquaintance almost never will.

Concluded the Court: “Given the broad statutory text and the variety of workplace contexts in which retaliation may occur, Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision is simply not reducible to a comprehensive set of clear rules.”

Does Fiancé have a Title VII Claim of His Own?

The more difficult question for the Court was whether the fired fiancé could sue under Title VII? The question concerns “standing.” Standing is a legal concept meaning does one have a threshold right to sue? Title VII allows “a person aggrieved” to sue for retaliation.

The Court examined various readings of the term “aggrieved” to define where it would be overly broad and where it would be very narrow, and rejected both. The Court instead read a similar provision from the Administrative Procedure Act, which creates a “zone of interests” whose violation forms the legal basis for a complaint.

The Court held, for the first time, that the term “aggrieved” in Title VII incorporates the APA test, enabling suit by any plaintiff with an interest “arguably [sought] to be protected by the statutes,” but excludes those plaintiffs only tenuously connected.


The Roberts Court has provided a short and straightforward decision in a difficult area of law, giving employees a surprising and welcome victory. The common sense opinion will allow lower courts to figure out which plaintiffs are in or out of the “zone of interest.”

This opinion is both important to and favorable for federal, state, and private sector employees who have suffered employment reprisals as a result of help given to family or family-type relations, as they will now be able to argue the facts and seek to demonstrate why Title VII’s anti-retaliation provisions both apply to and protect them.

If you or anyone you know requires legal advice in the area of employment law, please contact Hanan M. Isaacs, P.C. One of our lawyers will be pleased to meet with you and discuss your possible claims. Please call now for an appointment!!