(CN) – A former metal engineer was unable to tie his firing to the gender discrimination claim filed by his then-fiancée, who worked for the same company. The 6th Circuit said the retaliation claim failed, because the plaintiff never claimed that he personally engaged in any protected activity.
The federal appeals court in Cincinnati noted that it joined three sister circuits in limiting Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to plaintiffs “who have personally engaged in protected activity by opposing a practice, making a charge, or assisting or participating in an investigation.”
Plaintiff Eric Thompson claimed that he was fired based on his relationship with Miriam Regalado, his then-fiancee and co-worker at North American Stainless, who had filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Thompson and Regalado are now married.
The full 6th Circuit agreed to rehear the case after the district court ruled for North American Stainless, but the majority ultimately sided with the lower court.
“The plain text [of Title VII] simply cannot be read to encompass ‘piggyback’ protection of employees like Thompson who, by his own admission, did not engage in protected activity, but who is merely associated with another employee who did oppose an alleged unlawful employment practice,” Judge Griffin wrote.
Judges Boyce Martin Jr. and Karen Nelson Moore dissented in separate opinions.
“I am baffled by the majority opinion’s downplaying of important Supreme Court precedent in this area,” Moore wrote. She said the high court has applied a broad approach to interpreting employment laws meant to protect employees against employer retaliation.
Martin also pointed to Supreme Court decisions that have rejected narrow interpretations of what it means to “oppose” an unlawful employment practice.
“[T]he majority fails to recognize that the meaning of ‘oppose’ … is broader than it thinks and, at minimum, ambiguous,” he wrote.
He said the majority’s decision “sidesteps the traditional framework – which includes causation and discriminatory intent requirements – for deciding discrimination claims.”