Back in January 2011, when I had only one child and an Aston Martin savings fund, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP. In that case, the Court held that an employer violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act if it takes action against an employee who is in the same “zone of interest” as another employee who files a Charge of Discrimination with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
In Thompson, a company received an EEOC Charge of Discrimination and allegedly fired the employee’s fiancé in response. The Supreme Court held that, if true, this set of fact would amount to retaliation.
Now, fast forward to 2014. I have four children, I’m two Happy Meals away from declaring bankruptcy, and, last night, I dined on the leftover ketchup packets.
Meanwhile, the EEOC has filed an action on behalf of a woman who claims that she was fired because a co-worker, who happens to be her very good friend, complained about retaliation at work.
Does the fired friend have a claim for retaliation?
According to a New Hampshire federal court (opinion here), she may:
The complaint alleges that Mulcahey was a close friend of Wilkins, the individual who engaged in the protected conduct. The two women worked together at a prior company, and Wilkins was influential in procuring Mulcahey’s job with Fuller Oil. On Mulcahey’s desk at work she displayed birthday and mother’s day cards from Wilkins alongside pictures of Wilkins’s daughter and the two women together. The complaint also alleges that Fred Fuller knew of this close friendship. Fuller knew that the two women spoke frequently and spent time together out of work – as demonstrated by his statement about setting up a “play date” with the two women and Wilkins’s daughter. When Fuller wanted to contact Wilkins, he asked Mulcahey about her whereabouts and requested her personal email address from Mulcahey. This relationship, as pled, exists somewhere in the fact-specific gray area between close friend and casual acquaintance. Although I could not say that such a friendship definitively supports a successful claim, I also cannot say as a matter of law that it does not.
Let’s put the Thompson test aside for a sec. There’s something really messed up if you’re even considering firing anyone (other than the alleged harasser) as a response to an employee complaint of discrimination.
Certainly not a move I’d recommend to a client.