The Court decided several cases with significance for labor law and employees.
i. The Fair Labor Standards Act
In Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics (09-834), a 6-2 majority held that the anti-retaliation provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 protects employees who file oral as well as written complaints. Justice Breyer delivered the Court’s opinion noting that the key phrase “filed any complaint” warrants a broad interpretation. Also, the Court reasoned that a reading that excluded oral complaints would undermine the Act’s basic objectives. The Court agreed, however, with Saint-Gobain that the statute requires the complaint to be sufficiently clear and detailed to give fair notice to the employer. Justice Scalia, joined by Justice Thomas, dissented, arguing that the plain meaning of the text contemplates only official grievances filed with a court or agency.
ii. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964
Petitioner Eric Thompson was fired three weeks after his fiancée, Miriam Regalado, filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) alleging sex discrimination against their employer, North American Stainless (“NAS”). Thompson filed unlawful retaliation charges with the EEOC, and sued NAS in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The District Court granted summary judgment for NAS and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.
In Thompson v. North American Stainless (09-291), a unanimous Court, sitting without Justice Kagan, reversed the lower courts’ decision, holding that Title VII allowed Thompson to bring third party retaliation claims. Justice Scalia, writing for the majority, reasoned that Title VII prohibits employer conduct that could dissuade reasonable employees from making or supporting charges. The Court concluded that employer retaliation against third parties, including fiancées, qualifies as action prohibited by Title VII. However, the Court declined to identify a fixed class of relationships, noting only that the standard must be objective. Justice Scalia also noted that Thompson had a cause of action because, as an employee who suffered intentional injuries, he fell within the “zone of interests” protected by Title VII.
iii. Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act ("USERRA")
Vincent Staub was a technician for Procter Hospital and a member of the United States Army Reserve. Staub asserted that his employment had been unlawfully terminated due to the anti-military animus of his direct supervisors, who nevertheless did not make the ultimate decision to fire him. In response to a suit under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (“USERRA”), the District Court ruled in Staub’s favor and awarded damages. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed, holding that Proctor was not liable under the “cat’s paw” theory, which holds employers liable for the animus of a supervisor who influences, but does not make, adverse employment decisions.
In Staub v. Proctor Hospital (09-400), the Court, sitting without Justice Kagan, reversed, holding that the evidence was sufficient to find Proctor liable for the discriminatory actions of its supervising employees. Noting that USERRA is very similar to Title VII, Justice Scalia drew upon agency and tort law to conclude that the “cat’s paw” theory is applicable in cases where a supervisor acts with a discriminatory motive and unlawful intent to cause the adverse action. The Court also determined that the discriminatory act of the supervisor must be a “proximate cause” of the ultimate adverse action, contrary to the Seventh Circuit’s holding that the discriminatory act must be the “singular influence” on the decision.
While concurring in the judgment, Justices Alito and Thomas contended that the majority had strayed from the statutory text, adopting a reading likely to produce confusion. Justice Alito argued that a plain reading of the statute requires a showing that discrimination was the motivating factor behind the actual adverse action, rather than an intermediate act that ultimately caused the adverse action. He also asserted that a decision-maker’s reliance on facts provided by another person cannot be considered a delegation of decision-making authority.