Thursday, July 31, 2008

Associational Retaliation Revisited

In Thompson v. North Am. Stainless, the 6th Circuit recognized a claim for associational retaliation, holding: "Title VII prohibit[s] employers from taking retaliatory action against employees not directly involved in protected activity, but who are so closely related to or associated with those who are directly involved, that it is clear that the protected activity motivated the employer's action." This week, another court, the U.S. District Court in New Mexico, took up the same issue and reached the contrary result.

Ramona Kay Bradford, a Wal-Mart employee, filed a charge of discrimination against Wal-Mart with the EEOC. Two months later, her daughter, Robin, applied for a position at the same Wal-Mart store. Although she received positive feedback from her first interview, Robin was not called back for a second interview. At least five individuals with less schedule availability and lower qualifications were hired. Two months after Robin was rejected, Ramona's son, John, suffered the same fate when he applied for a job at the same Wal-Mart store.

In EEOC v. Wal-Mart, the EEOC alleged that Wal-Mart violated Title VII when it failed to hire Robin and John Bradford in retaliation for their mother’s Title VII charge of discrimination. The court was asked to decide whether Robin and John Bradford could sue for retaliation even though they did not personally "engage in protected opposition to discrimination" or "assist or participate in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing under [Title VII]." The EEOC took the same position as the Court in Thompson v. North Am. Stainless -- that Title VII prohibits retaliation not only against the person who engaged in the protected activity, but also against "someone so closely related to or associated with the person exercising his or her statutory rights that it would discourage that person from pursuing those rights."

The Court, however, was not persuaded:

Despite the danger that employers might retaliate against an employee’s family member and undermine the overall purpose of the anti-retaliation provision, this Court must apply the plain statutory language unless it results in "an absurd outcome that contravenes the clearly expressed intent of the legislature." ... The clear wording of [Title VII's anti-retaliation] provision limits causes of action to persons who engage in opposition or who participate in some way, even if minimally, in the protected activity. ...  And, expanding the scope of persons by whom an action can be brought beyond the clear language of the statute is not within the purview of the courts, but is the responsibility of Congress.

In other words, if Congress intended Title VII's anti-retaliation provision to reach family members of those who engage in protected activity, Congress would have said so in the statute.

This case illustrates the split on this issue among the various federal courts, a split in which the 6th Circuit is in the minority. At some point, the U.S. Supreme Court will be asked to review this issue. Until then, be mindful that associational retaliation is illegal under federal law in Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, and Tennessee, even if other courts correctly disagree.