By Glenn Sulzer, J.D.
The zone of interests that Title VII protects is limited to parties in an employment relationship with the employer alleged to have committed the retaliatory or unlawful actions.
A third-party wholesaler was not entitled to sue under Title VII as the intentional target of a company’s retaliatory actions against his daughter for filing a pregnancy discrimination claim, according to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. The father was not employed by the company, and Title VII only protects employees from the unlawful acts of their employers, the appeals court reasoned (Simmons v. UBS Financial Services, Inc., August 24, 2020, Smith, J.).
Retaliation for daughter’s pregnancy discrimination claim. The plaintiff was employed by Prelle Financial Group as a third-party wholesaler of life-insurance products to clients of UBS Financial Services. His daughter was a UBS employee who had filed charges with the EEOC alleging pregnancy discrimination by the company. The employee’s claim was eventually settled, and she resigned from the company.
Lost job. Subsequently the plaintiff’s third-party relationship with UBS deteriorated to the point that he was denied access to UBS offices and prohibited from doing business with UBS clients. As a consequence of the UBS actions, the plaintiff’s employment with Prelle effectively ended and he left his position.
The plaintiff then brought suit against UBS, alleging, under Title VII, that the company “retaliated against his daughter by taking adverse actions against him.” UBS moved to dismiss the claim, arguing that he was not a UBS employee and, thus, not entitled to sue under Title VII. The federal trial court agreed with UBS, ruling that his nonemployee status foreclosed his statutory standing to sue, and the Fifth Circuit affirmed.
Zone of interests protected by Title VII. Initially, the appeals court explained that in order to have Title VII standing, an aggrieved person must bring a claim that falls within the “zone of interests” sought to be protected by the statutory provision that forms the legal basis of the complaint. While the zone of interests test is to be read expansively, the court advised, it cannot be applied to include interests that are only “marginally related” to or inconsistent with the purposes implicit in the statute. The novel issue before the court was whether the plaintiff, as opposed to his daughter, was covered by Title VII, even though he did not engage in activity protected by the statute.
Supreme Court case dispositive. In resolving the issue, the Fifth Circuit panel relied on the Supreme Court’s reasoning in Thompson v. N. Am. Stainless, LP . In Thompson, the Supreme Court allowed an employee to sue his employer under Title VII for discharging him in retaliation for his fiancee having filed a sex discrimination claim against the company. The Court rejected the categorical view restricting standing under Title VII to employees who engage in a protected activity. Applying the zone of interests standard, the Court stressed that the plaintiff was: (1) an employee protected from unlawful employer actions under Title VII and (2) actually injured by the unlawful acts by which the employer sought to punish his fiance. Accordingly, even though the employee had not engaged in protected activity, he fell within Title VII’s zone of protected interests and had statutory standing.
Citing Thompson, the plaintiff here maintained that it would be consistent with Title VII’s anti-discrimination purposes to allow an affected third party to bring suit, even if not employed by the aggrieving employer. The fact that UBS purposefully targeted him because of his close association with an employee who engaged in protected activity, the plaintiff urged, was sufficient to afford him standing.
The appeals court, however, agreed with UBS and the trial court that the fact that the plaintiff was not an employee of UBS negated his claim to Title VII standing. The zone of interests that Title VII protects, the court stressed, is limited to parties in employment relationships with a defendant employer. As the plaintiff was not an employee of UBS, only the father of an employee, the court concluded that his interests were only marginally related to the purposes of Title VII.
Third party suit would advance Title VII goals. Alternatively, the plaintiff argued that his daughter’s employment relationship with UBS brought his claim within the scope of Title VII. The statute’s purpose of protecting employees from an employer’s unlawful actions, the plaintiff maintained, would be served by allowing a third party to sue for harm suffered as the direct result of the employer’s retaliatory animosity towards a complaining employee, even if the third party was not an employee of the company.
Rejecting this argument as well, the appeals court stressed that a plaintiff must establish that the alleged injury fell within the protected zone of interests and that his personal interests were covered by Title VII. The fact that a claim would advance Title VII’s goal of eliminating retaliatory employer actions, the court advised, was not sufficient to allow for standing. UBS’s decision to discontinue its business relationship with the plaintiff as a third party wholesaler, the court held, was “not the stuff” Title VII was written to address.
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