Thompson v. North American Stainless, Lp

Decision Date31 March 2008
Docket NumberNo. 07-5040.,07-5040.
Citation520 F.3d 644
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 & James, Louisville, Kentucky, for Appellant. Leigh G. Latherow, VanAntwerp, Monge, Jones, Edwards & McCann, LLP, Ashland, Kentucky, for Appellee. Gail S. Coleman, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Washington, DC, for Amicus Curiae.

ON BRIEF:

David O'Brien Suetholz, Joseph Delano Wibbels, Jr., Segal, Lindsay & James, Louisville, Kentucky, for Appellant. Leigh G. Latherow, Gregory L. Monge, VanAntwerp, Monge, Jones, Edwards & McCann, LLP, Ashland, Kentucky, for Appellee. Gail S. Coleman, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Washington, DC, for Amicus Curiae.

Before: MOORE and GRIFFIN, Circuit Judges; TARNOW, District Judge.*

TARNOW, D.J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which MOORE, J., joined. GRIFFIN, J. (pp. ___-___), delivered a separate dissenting opinion.

OPINION

TARNOW, District Judge.

Shortly after Appellant Eric Thompson's fiancee filed a discrimination charge with the EEOC against their common employer, the Appellee, Thompson was terminated. The parties to this appeal ask whether the anti-retaliation provisions in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act protect a related or associated third party from retaliation under such circumstances. We hold that that they do, and REVERSE the district court's grant of summary judgment to the employer.

I.

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-fiancee's EEOC charge, while North American Stainless contends that performance-based reasons supported the plaintiffs 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 plaintiffs claim, that his "relationship to Miriam Thompson [nee 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 fiancee who works for the same employer. The EEOC has filed an amicus curiae brief in support of plaintiffs position.

II.
A.

A district court's grant of summary judgment is reviewed de novo. Cicero v. Borg-Warner Automotive, Inc., 280 F.3d 579, 583 (6th Cir.2002) (citing Doren v. Battle Creek Health Sys., 187 F.3d 595, 597 (6th Cir.1999)). In reviewing the decision, we apply the same legal standard as the lower court. Cline v. Catholic Diocese of Toledo, 206 F.3d 651, 657 (6th Cir.2000). Summary judgment is only appropriate when the evidence submitted shows "that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Cicero, 280 F.3d at 583 (quoting Fed. R.Civ.P. 56(c)).

B.

Section 704(a) of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prevents retaliation by employers for two types of activity, opposition, and participation.

It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer to discriminate against any of his employees ... 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.

We are asked whether section 704(a)'s protections extend to persons not expressly described in the statute. Specifically, does Title VII prohibit employers from taking retaliatory action against employees not directly involved in protected activity, but who are so closely related to or associated with those who are directly involved, that it is clear that the protected activity motivated the employer's action? As such conduct would undermine the purposes of Title VII, we hold that such retaliatory action is prohibited.

C.

Defendant argues that the statute is unambiguous. That is, the plain language of the statute indicates that the only individual protected by 704(a) is the one who conducted the protected activity.

However, "[i]t is a well-established canon of statutory construction that a court should go beyond the literal language of a statute if reliance on that language would defeat the plain purpose of the statute[.]" Bob Jones University v. United States, 461 U.S. 574, 586, 103 S.Ct. 2017, 2025, 76 L.Ed.2d 157 (1983). Further, "it is well settled that, in interpreting a statute, the court will not look merely to a particular clause in which general words may be used, but will take in connection with it the whole statute ... and the objects and policy of the law...." Id. (alterations in original) (quoting Brown v. Duchesne, 19 How. 183, 194, 15 L.Ed. 595 (1857)).

Robinson v. Shell Oil, 519 U.S. 337, 117 S.Ct. 843, 136 L.Ed.2d 808 (1997), which also interpreted section 704(a), stated that whether a statute is plain and unambiguous can only be evaluated "with regard to the particular dispute in the case." Id. at 340, 117 S.Ct. 843. A court must evaluate not only the contested statutory language, but also "the specific context in which that language is used, and the broader context of the statute as a whole." Id. at 341, 117 S.Ct. at 846.

Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53, 126 S.Ct. 2405, 165 L.Ed.2d 345 (2006), discussed that broader context and the object of Title VII: "The anti-retaliation provision seeks to secure [a non-discriminatory workplace] by preventing an employer from interfering (through retaliation) with an employee's efforts to secure or advance enforcement of the Act's basic guarantees." Id. at 2412. It characterized section 704(a)'s primary purpose as "Maintaining unfettered access to statutory remedial mechanisms." Id. (quoting Robinson, 519 U.S. 337, 346, 117 S.Ct. 843, 136 L.Ed.2d 808). Burlington held that a plaintiff must demonstrate a "materially adverse" retaliatory action, which it defined as one that "well might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination." Id. at 2415 (quotation marks and citations omitted).

Here, a literal reading of section 704(a) suggests a prohibition on employer retaliation only when it is directed to the individual who conducted the protected activity. Such a reading, however, "defeats the plain purpose" of Title VII. There is no doubt that an employer's retaliation against a family member after an employee files an EEOC charge would, under Burlington, dissuade "reasonable workers" from such an action.

Support for our holding is found as well in the EEOC Compliance Manual. See Meritor Sav. Bank, FSB v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57, 65, 106 S.Ct. 2399, 2404, 91 L.Ed.2d 49 (1986) ("[EEOC] Guidelines, while not controlling ... do constitute a body of experience and informed judgment to which courts and litigants may properly resort for guidance.") (quotation marks and citations omitted); Griggs v. Duke Power Co., 401 U.S. 424, 433-34, 91 S.Ct. 849, 854-55, 28 L.Ed.2d 158 (1971) ("The administrative interpretation of the [Civil Rights] Act by the enforcing agency is entitled to great deference."). The Burlington decision also found support in the Compliance Manual for its interpretation of section 704(a), see 126 S.Ct. at 2413-14, as did Robinson, see 117 S.Ct. at 848.

The Compliance Manual expressly states that a person claiming retaliation need not be the one who conducted the protected activity. "Title VII ... prohibit[s] retaliation against someone so closely related to or associated with the person exercising his or her statutory rights that it would discourage that person from pursuing those rights." Johnson v. University of Cincinnati 215 F.3d 561, 580 (6th Cir. 2000) (emphasis added) (quoting EEOC Compliance Manual (CCH) ¶ 8006).

D.

Our holding today is consistent with Circuit precedent, as well as interpretive practices of both this Court and the Supreme Court. In EEOC v. Ohio Edison Co., 7 F.3d 541 (6th Cir.1993), we observed that

courts have routinely adopted interpretations of retaliation provisions in" employment statutes that might be viewed as outside the literal terms of the statute in order to effectuate Congress's clear purpose in proscribing retaliatory activity. Contrary to defendant's assertions, courts...

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