Friday, April 22, 2011

He's Just Not That Into You

A New Twist On Workplace Romance After Thompson v. North American Stainless

Workplace romances have always been a breeding ground for employment lawsuits. Claims of sexual harassment, discrimination, favoritism and retaliation erupt from the aftermath of two “romantic souls” finding each other (and often losing each other) at work.

The recent United States Supreme Court ruling in Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP, (Jan. 24, 2011) added a new twist to the “workplace romance-begets-litigation” scenario. In Thompson, Eric Thompson and his fiancé, Miriam Regaldo, both worked for North American Stainless (NAS). In 2002, Regaldo filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleging that her supervisors discriminated against her based on her gender. On February 13, 2003, the EEOC notified NAS of Regaldo's charge. Approximately three weeks later, NAS terminated her fiancé, Thompson. In his lawsuit, Thompson alleged that he was terminated in retaliation for his fiancé's EEOC charge, while NAS contended that performance-based reasons supported Thompson's termination.

The US Supreme Court ruled that NAS’s firing of Regaldo’s fiancé was a retaliatory act designed to punish her for filing the EEOC complaint and that Thompson – the fiancé who did not engage in any protected activity such as make the complaint or act as a witness in the investigation did have standing to sue for retaliation as a person in Regaldo’s “zone of interest.”

Refusing to define which third party relationships are defined as within the “zone of interest,” the Court referred back to an earlier decision it made in a retaliation case, Burlington N.S.F. R. Co. v. White and stated, “We expect that firing a close family member will almost always meet the Burlington standard, and inflicting a milder reprisal on a mere acquaintance will almost never do so, but beyond that we are reluctant to generalize."

In leaving the door open as to which relationships are within an employee’s “zone of interest” the Court expanded the number of people with standing to sue for retaliation. Not only will this contribute to “retaliation cases” being the number one claim filed with the EEOC, as it was last year, but it has added new “language” to the workplace romance scenario. Now, if a person wants to know if their relationship is heading towards the altar, they can inquire whether their beloved considers him or herself within their “zone of interest.” If the answer is “No,” that’s a definite sign that he or she’s just “not that into you.”

Some Proactive Lawsuit Prevention Strategies that employers can implement to Prevent Retaliation Lawsuits are:

1) Draft and implement a No Retaliation Policy that is separate and apart from your harassment prevention policy. Most employers have a one or two sentence prohibition against retaliation in their other policies. This is no longer enough in light of the prevalence of retaliation claims.
2) Train your employees and managers on retaliation (again, not just an add on topic to their sexual harassment prevention training). Spend time explaining to them what types of behavior constitute potential retaliation, (including conduct that doesn’t detrimentally affect pay) and to be aware that third parties who have close relationships with a complainant and witnesses are now within the “zone of interest” for retaliation.
3) Review Anti-Fraternization Policies, if the company has them, to ensure that they are consistently enforced, but watch out for selective enforcement right after a complaint is filed.
4) Involve HR when disciplining complainants, witnesses and people within their zone of interest, especially when doing so right after the complaint is filed, or an investigation takes place.
5) During an investigation into the underlying claim, remind employees to come to HR if they feel that they are experiencing retaliation so that the company can investigate the retaliation claim and help protect the parties and witnesses in an investigation, as well as those individuals within their zone of interest.

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