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Employers are bracing for a new batch of workplace lawsuits � retaliation by association. In a case that broadens the scope of retaliation claims, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that relatives and associates of those who file workplace lawsuits are also protected by retaliation laws. The recent ruling involved a man and his fianc�e � both engineers who worked at the same factory � who alleged he was fired because his fianc�e filed a gender discrimination claim against the employer. He claimed he was entitled to the same anti-retaliation protection as his fianc�e. The 6th Circuit agreed, holding that third-party retaliation should not be tolerated. Thompson v. North American Stainless, No. 07-5040 (6th Cir.). Retaliating with ‘impunity’ “Other courts have expressed concerns as to whether this decision will result in a flood of suits from relatives and associates of those who file [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] charges,” the court wrote in its opinion. “Of greater concern to the court would be the result of a contrary ruling. That is, permitting employers to retaliate with impunity for opposition to unlawful practices, filing EEOC charges or otherwise participating in such efforts, as long as that retaliation is only directed at family members and friends, and not the individual conducting the protected activity.” Management-side attorneys fear the ruling will trigger a slew of new lawsuits by third parties of all sorts. “What we’re going to see now is every time John Doe is fired and claims that he engaged in some protected activity, you’re going to see everybody who knows him in the workplace is going to jump on the bandwagon and think they have a lawsuit, too,” said Jon Hyman, a management-side employment lawyer at Cleveland, Ohio’s Kohrman Jackson & Krantz. “So now you’re not just going to be litigating against John Doe, but you’ll be litigating against all his friends and family who work in the same workplace.” Hyman said third-party retaliation lawsuits will add a new question to fight over in court: What friend or relative is worthy of protection? Leigh G. Latherow of VanAntwerp, Monge, Jones, Edwards & McCann in Ashland, Ky., who represented the employer in the 6th Circuit case, echoed similar concerns, saying that the ruling could “open the floodgates of litigation.” According to Latherow, the 6th Circuit ruling created a split among the circuits on the subject of retaliation-by-association. She said the 3d, 5th and 8th circuits all have struck down third-party retaliation claims. In its opinion, the 6th Circuit, however, cited similar rulings by the 7th and 11th circuits in reaching its conclusion that third parties are entitled to protection from retaliation. David O’Brien Suetholz, who represented the plaintiff in the 6th Circuit case, believes that the court got it right. “You no longer have to be fearful that your friend or your loved ones working for the same employer are going to suffer because of your engaging in protected activity,” said Suetholz of Segal Lindsay & Janes in Louisville, Ky.

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