Thompson v. North American Stainless, Lp

Decision Date05 June 2009
Docket NumberNo. 07-5040.,07-5040.
Citation567 F.3d 804
PartiesEric L. THOMPSON, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. NORTH AMERICAN STAINLESS, LP, Defendant-Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Sixth Circuit

David O'Brien Suetholz, Segal, Lindsay & Janes, Louisville, Kentucky, for Appellant. Leigh Gross Latherow, VanAntwerp, Monge, Jones, Edwards & McCann, LLP, Ashland, Kentucky, for Appellee. Gail S. Coleman, U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Washington, D.C., for Amici Curiae.

ON BRIEF:

David O'Brien Suetholz, Joseph Delano Wibbels, Jr., Segal, Lindsay & Janes, Louisville, Kentucky, for Appellant. Leigh Gross Latherow, Gregory L. Monge, VanAntwerp, Monge, Jones, Edwards & McCann, LLP, Ashland, Kentucky, for Appellee. Gail S. Coleman, U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Washington, D.C., Rae T. Vann, Norris, Tysse, Lampley & Lakis, LLP, Washington, D.C., Nelson D. Cary, Alexandra T. Schimmer, Vorys, Sater, Seymour & Pease LLP, Columbus, Ohio, for Amici Curiae.

Before: BOGGS, Chief Judge; MARTIN, BATCHELDER, DAUGHTREY, MOORE, COLE, CLAY, GILMAN, GIBBONS, ROGERS, SUTTON, COOK, McKEAGUE, GRIFFIN, KETHLEDGE, and WHITE, Circuit Judges.

GRIFFIN, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which BOGGS, C.J., BATCHELDER, GILMAN, GIBBONS, SUTTON, COOK, McKEAGUE, and KETHLEDGE, JJ., joined. ROGERS, J. (pp. 816-18), delivered a separate opinion concurring in the result. MARTIN, J. (pp. 818-20), delivered a separate dissenting opinion, in which DAUGHTREY, MOORE, COLE, CLAY, and WHITE, JJ., joined, with MOORE, J. (pp. 820-26), joined by MARTIN, DAUGHTREY, COLE, CLAY, and WHITE, JJ., and WHITE, J. (pp. 826-30), joined by Judge DAUGHTREY, also delivering separate dissenting opinions.

OPINION

GRIFFIN, Circuit Judge.

The sole issue raised in this rehearing en banc is whether § 704(a) of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a), creates a cause of action for third-party retaliation for persons who have not personally engaged in protected activity. After applying the plain and unambiguous statutory text, we join the Third, Fifth, and Eighth Circuit Courts of Appeal in holding that the authorized class of claimants is limited to persons who have personally engaged in protected activity by opposing a practice, making a charge, or assisting or participating in an investigation. Because plaintiff Eric L. Thompson does not claim that he personally engaged in any protected activity, we affirm the judgment of the district court granting summary judgment in favor of defendant North American Stainless, LP.

I.

The relevant facts are recited in our vacated panel opinion, Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP, 520 F.3d 644, 645-46 (6th Cir.2008), reh. en banc granted, opinion vacated (July 28, 2008):

From February 1997 through March 2003, the plaintiff, Eric L. Thompson, worked as a metallurgical engineer for defendant North American Stainless, LP, the owner and operator of a stainless steel manufacturing facility in Carroll County, Kentucky. Thompson met Miriam Regalado, currently his wife, when she was hired by the defendant in 2000, and the couple began dating shortly thereafter. At the time of Thompson's termination, he and Regalado were engaged to be married, and their relationship was common knowledge at North American Stainless.

According to the complaint, Regalado filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in September 2002, alleging that her supervisors discriminated against her based on her gender. On February 13, 2003, the EEOC notified North American Stainless of Regalado's charge. Slightly more than three weeks later, on March 7, 2003, the defendant terminated Thompson's employment. Thompson alleges that he was terminated in retaliation for his then-fiancée's EEOC charge, while North American Stainless contends that performance-based reasons supported the plaintiff's termination.

Thompson filed a charge with the EEOC, which conducted an investigation and found "reasonable cause to believe that [the Defendant] violated Title VII." After conciliation efforts were unsuccessful, the EEOC issued a right-to-sue letter and Thompson filed a cause of action against North American Stainless in the Eastern District of Kentucky.

North American Stainless moved for summary judgment, contending that the plaintiff's claim, that his "relationship to Miriam Thompson [née Regalado] was the sole motivating factor in his termination," was insufficient as a matter of law to support a cause of action under Title VII. The district court granted the defendant's motion, holding that Thompson failed to state a claim under either the anti-discrimination provision contained in 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a) or the anti-retaliation provision set forth in 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a).

The plaintiff appeals from this judgment, contending that the anti-retaliation provision of Title VII prohibits an employer from terminating an employee based on the protected activity of his fiancée who works for the same employer. The EEOC has filed an amicus curiae brief in support of plaintiff's position.

II.

We review de novo the district court's order granting summary judgment. Kleiber v. Honda of Am. Mfg., Inc., 485 F.3d 862, 868 (6th Cir.2007). Summary judgment is warranted "if the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." FED.R.CIV.P. 56(c).

III.

When Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it created a new and limited cause of action for retaliation in the employment setting. The relevant language of the statute provides:

It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer to discriminate against any of his employees or applicants for employment ... because he has opposed any practice made an unlawful employment practice by this subchapter, or because he has made a charge, testified, assisted, or participated in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing under this subchapter.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, § 704(a), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a) (emphasis added).

Certainly it was Congress's prerogative to create—or refrain from creating— a federal cause of action for civil rights retaliation and to mold the scope of such legislation, making the boundaries of coverage either expansive or limited in nature: "Statutory rights and obligations are established by Congress, and it is entirely appropriate for Congress, in creating these rights and obligations, to determine in addition, who may enforce them and in what manner." Davis v. Passman, 442 U.S. 228, 240, 99 S.Ct. 2264, 60 L.Ed.2d 846 (1979).

When we, in turn, are called upon to review and interpret Congress's legislation, "[i]t is elementary that the meaning of a statute must, in the first instance, be sought in the language in which the act is framed, and if that is plain, and if the law is within the constitutional authority of the lawmaking body which passed it, the sole function of the courts is to enforce it according to its terms." Caminetti v. United States, 242 U.S. 470, 485, 37 S.Ct. 192, 61 L.Ed. 442 (1917). "If the words are plain, they give meaning to the act, and it is neither the duty nor the privilege of the courts to enter speculative fields in search of a different meaning." Id. at 490, 37 S.Ct. 192. Recognizing the consequences of unbridled judicial forays into the legislative sphere, the Supreme Court has admonished "`time and again that a legislature says in a statute what it means and means in a statute what it says there.'" Arlington Cent. Sch. Dist. Bd. of Ed. v. Murphy, 548 U.S. 291, 126 S.Ct. 2455, 165 L.Ed.2d 526 (2006) (quoting Connecticut Nat. Bank v. Germain, 503 U.S. 249, 112 S.Ct. 1146, 117 L.Ed.2d 391 (1992)). Accordingly, "[w]hen the statutory language is plain, the sole function of the courts—at least where the disposition required by the text is not absurd —is to enforce it according to its terms." Id. (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). See also Robinson v. Shell Oil Co., 519 U.S. 337, 340, 117 S.Ct. 843, 136 L.Ed.2d 808 (1997) ("[The courts'] inquiry must cease if the statutory language is unambiguous and the statutory scheme is coherent and consistent.") (internal citation and quotation marks omitted); Rubin v. United States, 449 U.S. 424, 430, 101 S.Ct. 698, 66 L.Ed.2d 633 (1981) ("When we find the terms of a statute unambiguous, judicial inquiry is complete, except in rare and exceptional circumstances.").

In our view, the text of § 704(a) is plain in its protection of a limited class of persons who are afforded the right to sue for retaliation. To be included in this class, plaintiff must show that his employer discriminated against him "because he has opposed any practice made an unlawful employment practice by this subchapter, or because he has made a charge, testified, assisted, or participated in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing under this subchapter." 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a) (emphasis added).

Significantly, Thompson does not claim that he engaged in any statutorily protected activity, either on his own behalf or on behalf of Miriam Regalado. In Paragraph 13 of his complaint, Thompson alleges that "[d]efendant has intentionally retaliated against Plaintiff because his wife, Miriam Thompson, filed a charge with the [EEOC] based on gender discrimination prohibited by 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a). Plaintiff's relationship to Miriam Thompson was the sole motivating factor in his termination." (Emphasis added.) In his appellate brief to our three-judge panel, Thompson framed his "Statement of the Issue" on appeal as follows: "Whether § 704(a) of Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a), prohibits an employer from terminating an individual in retaliation for the protected activity of his fiancée who also works for the employer." Further, he alleged in his...

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