It is no secret that, under state and federal law, employers may not retaliate against employees for engaging in protected activities such as reporting or assisting with an investigation into discrimination. But what if your employer retaliates against you because you are a close colleague of an employee who participated in a protected activity, such as complaining about race, gender, national origin, religious or other forms of discrimination ? Will you have a claim?
In January 2011, the United States Supreme Court in Thompson v. North American Stainless held that an employee may be protected from retaliation merely by being in the “zone of interests” of someone who participated in a protected activity. So, for example, suppose your fiancé, who works for the same company, sues your employer for disability discrimination. Shortly after the lawsuit is filed, you and your fiancé are suddenly fired. Your fiancé might have a claim for retaliation because she was engaged in a protected activity, but what about you?
When an employee believes their actions will put a close colleague at risk, that employee may decide not to assert their rights in order to spare the innocent bystander. Thus, the Court in Thompson recognized that employers could use retaliation by association as an effective yet indirect tool to stamp out protected activity. The Court’s decision limits an employer’s ability to take advantage of close relationships among colleagues. However, the Court did not fully explain exactly who falls within the so-called “zone of interests,” and under what circumstances.
To date, the question of exactly who may bring a “zone of interests” claim, and under what circumstances, remains unresolved. For example, although Thompson involved retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a recently filed lawsuit seeks to expand the “zone of interests” analysis to claims brought under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”). Also, the close colleague who filed the suit is not related to the other employee by marriage or otherwise, which begs the question: when is a work relationship significant enough to warrant protection from retaliation by association?
If you believe you are a victim of retaliation by association, know your rights. The employment attorneys at The Spitz Law Firm, will continue to follow this developing area of the law and remain up-to-date on any changes that might affect our clients.
If you have been fired, discriminated against, denied wages, or even think that you might need an employment lawyer, then it would be best to call the right attorney to schedule a free and confidential consultation at (216) 291-4744. The Spitz Law Firm and its attorneys are experienced and dedicated to protecting employees’ rights and solving employment disputes.
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