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Supreme Court to decide limits on retaliation ban

WASHINGTON — A factory worker was fired days after his fiancee filed a discrimination complaint against their mutual employer. The Supreme Court on Tuesday debated whether to allow him to use discrimination laws to sue his former employer for allegedly trying to retaliate against his fiancee by punishing him.

The high court heard arguments from lawyers for Eric Thompson, who was fired from a North American Stainless plant in Kentucky after his fiancee, who also worked there, filed a discrimination complaint.

Thompson’s fiancee and now-wife, Miriam Regalado, filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging that her supervisors at a stainless steel manufacturing plant discriminated against her because of her gender. The EEOC told North American Stainless of her charge on Feb. 13, 2003.

Thompson was fired on March 7.

Thompson then went to the EEOC and complained that he had been fired because of his fiancee’s complaint. But the federal courts threw out his lawsuit complaining of retaliation, saying the law “does not permit a retaliation claim by a plaintiff who did not himself engage in protected activity” by opposing an unlawful employment practice.

But Thompson’s lawyer, Eric Schnapper, said it was clear that North American Stainless was trying to get back at Regalado by firing Thompson.

“They singled out Ms. Regalado and Ms. Regalado’s fiancee. They didn’t go fire anybody else’s fiancée,” Schnapper said.

The solicitor general’s office is supporting Thompson’s attempt to bring suit against North American Stainless. Justice Elena Kagan did not take part in the case because she worked on it while serving as solicitor general.

“When an employer fires an employee as a means of retaliating against a relative or close associate who has filed an EEOC charge, the employee who has been fired is entitled under (discrimination laws) to go to court and seek appropriate remedies, even if he hasn’t himself engaged in protected activity,” Justice Department lawyer Leondra R. Kruger told the court.

North American Stainless lawyer Leigh Gross Latherow said they are not arguing against the fact that it could be illegal to retaliate against a person’s friends or family.

She said the only question is whether anyone outside of the person who was discriminated against can sue under the discrimination laws. “No one is seeking damages for Ms. Regalado in this case. Eric Thompson is here to use her rights to recover for her alleged discrimination based upon her conduct,” she said.

Justices wondered whether allowing a fiancee to sue would open the floodgates to retaliation lawsuits from everyone who gets fired who had any connection to a complaining employee.

“Does it include simply a good friend?” said Justice Samuel Alito. “Does it include somebody who just has lunch in the cafeteria everyday with the person who engaged in the protected conduct? Somebody who once dated the person who engaged in the protected conduct?”

The court is expected to make a decision sometime next year.

The case is Thompson v. North American Stainless LP, 09-291.