In 2011, the Supreme Court of the United States decided Thompson v. North American Stainless, 131 S.Ct. 863 (2011). In that case, Plaintiff Eric Thompson claimed that he had been fired by North American Steel because the company was retaliating against his fiancee, Miriam Regalado, whom had filed a sex discrimination charge with the EEOC. Although the Court declined to define a fixed class of relationships for which third party reprisals would be unlawful, it recognized that the firing of someone close to an employee may cause a reasonable worker to be dissuaded from participating in protected activity. The Court also stated that even though Thompson was not the person who originally experienced the discrimination, the nature of his injury gave him standing to sue under Title VII.
In the three years since the Thompson decision was published, the case has been cited to in opinions hundreds of times. This article will explore the ways it has been used in the Third Circuit United State Court of Appeals, and the Pennsylvania federal district courts.
Shortly after the decision by the Supreme Court, the Third Circuit denied an appeal from a district court’s determination that it did not have subject matter jurisdiction over a suit brought by a pro se litigant under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The litigant claimed that his rights were violated under the ADA as well as the rights of his “loved one.” The Third Circuit found that the litigant’s reliance on Thompson was unfounded. Tilli v. Manorcare HealthServices, 419 Fed. Appx. 152 (3rd Cir. 2011).
In 2013, the Third Circuit found that the reasoning used by the Supreme Court in Thompson could also be used in regard to Section 1983 claims. In Montone v. City of Jersey City, 709 F. 3d 181 (3rd Cir. 2013), the Court held that “A party has standing to bring an action for First Amendment political affiliation retaliation pursuant to Section 1983, even where, as here, was directed towards another individual.” Id. at 196. The Third Circuit also adopted the “zones of interest” test, which the Supreme Court used in Thompson. This test requires that the plaintiff’s interests are sufficiently related to the purposes and protection of the statute.
The most significant case dealing with the holding in Thompson that was decided in the Pennsylvania federal district courts took place in the Eastern District. In Sterner v. County of Berks, 2014 WL 1281241 (E.D.Pa. 2014), decided March 28, 2014, two county employees brought claims under Title VII and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, one claiming sexual harassment and retaliation and the other claiming retaliation. The decision occurred after the Defendant filed a motion for summary judgment. The second employee (Austin) claimed that he was fired as retaliation for the first employee’s (Sterner) complaints of sexual harassment. The court stated that in the spectrum between casual acquaintance and close family member, the Plaintiffs’ friendship fell near enough to the close family member side of the spectrum that it fell within the zone of interest protection under Title VII.
These decisions make it clear that the zones of interest test is an important tool in Title VII retaliation litigation, and could possibly be used in cases relating to other statutes as well.
Michael Kraemer is a partner with Kraemer, Manes & Associates, a law firm headquartered in Pittsburgh, serving all of Pennsylvania, with attorneys focusing on business law, employment law, litigation, and civil issues. For more information please visit www.lawkm.com.