"The Sins of the Father": Third Party Retaliation Claims Allowed to Proceed
A recent Texas federal court decision has further expanded the bases for Title VII retaliation claims against employers. In Zamora v. City of Houston, Christopher Zamora, a Houston police officer, alleged that the Houston Police Department demoted him in retaliation for the filing of a charge with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"). In this case, however, the charge was not filed by Christopher Zamora, but by his father, Manuel Zamora, alleging that he, Manuel Zamora, had been discriminated against by the Department.
Earlier this year, in Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP, the United States Supreme Court permitted an employee's Title VII retaliation claim to proceed where the employee's fiancee had earlier filed an EEOC charge. The Court held that a Title VII retaliation claim could stand where the employee is subject to an adverse employment action because a co-worker to whom the employee is "closely related" engaged in protected activity.
The Supreme Court decided Thompson while the Zamora case was pending in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas. After the Thompson decision was issued, the Zamora court reversed its prior determination that dismissed Christopher Zamora's claim. The court concluded that under Thompson, Mr. Zamora's retaliation claim could proceed based on his father's filing of an EEOC charge. Thus, under Zamora, in addition to a fiancee, a parent-child relationship satisfies the "closely related" test enunciated by the Supreme Court in Thompson.
Retaliation charges and lawsuits typically are more challenging to defend because the employee's burden of proof is not as difficult to meet, as compared with a charge of discrimination. Thompson and Zamora now place an additional burden on employers by holding that employees themselves do not necessarily need to engage in the protected activity to have standing to sue for retaliation. These decisions may have a greater impact on employers that make it a practice to hire family members and friends of existing employees than on those with anti-nepotism policies.
The Supreme Court refrained from identifying a fixed class of relationships for which third-party retaliation claims are viable. Future cases will have to decide how far retaliation claims will be expanded: whether, for example, partners involved in a romantic relationship but who are not engaged, or familial relationships more distant than parent and child, are sufficiently close so as to fall within the zone of protection. Employers can help reduce the risk for these types of claims by reviewing their EEOC and anti-retaliation policies and ensuring that managers are trained and educated on compliance.