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The Family Members of Victims of Harassment are Afforded Protection Under Title VII

Posted by Scott M. Peterson | Jun 13, 2015 | 0 Comments

The New York Times recently reported on a sexual harassment issue at Yale School of Medicine involving the former Head of Cardiology's unwanted romantic advances on a junior research assistant. After the research assistant left Yale, her boyfriend (now husband)—also a doctor‐remained behind at Yale where the perpetrator of the harassment froze him out of staff meetings and allegedly obstructed his opportunity for advancement and tenure.

While in this case it appears that the harasser began negatively affecting the boyfriend's career prior to a formal complaint by the research assistant, the article called to mind an interesting area of Title VII law under which individuals who are closely related to a complainant are protected from discrimination and retaliation.

People “Closely Related” to Discrimination Victims Are Also Protected From Harassment

Title VII protects individuals from discrimination on the basis of, among other things, gender, race and national origin. Title VII also protects individuals from retaliation for making complaints about protected discrimination or for participating in an investigation, proceeding or litigation involving discrimination under Title VII. In a relatively recent decision, the United States Supreme Court in Thompson v. North American Stainless LP, 562 US 170 (2011) held that an employer also violates Title VII when it takes an adverse employment action against an employee because of that employee's close relationship with a co-employee who has made a complaint of discrimination under Title VII against the employer.

So what does this mean? Taking the Yale case as an example: if the research assistant had made a formal complaint of sexual harassment against the medical school because of the unwanted sexual advances of her superior, she would have made a complaint of discrimination under Title VII and the law would protect her from retaliation for making that complaint. So if the harasser or the school terminated her employment because of her complaint, she would have had a claim for both sexual harassment (a form of discrimination) and retaliation. In light of the Supreme Court's decision, if the harasser or the school also terminated the employment or otherwise took an adverse employment action against her boyfriend (such as denying him tenure or a promotion) because of her complaint, the boyfriend also would have a claim under Title VII.

Not everyone who is associated with a Title VII complainant is going to have a claim under Title VII. The Supreme Court noted that a family member almost always would and it appears apparent that spouses and significant others would as well. But, as in most cases, the Supreme Court did not create a bright line rule and whether an individual associated with a complainant (such as a “mere” friend) has standing to sue will depend on the facts of each individual case.

You can read the full article about the Yale case here.

  Giovanna A. D'Orazio  by Giovanna A. D'Orazio |

Giovanna practices employment, land use, commercial, civil and personal injury law at D'Orazio Peterson

About the Author

Scott M. Peterson

Scott M. Peterson is the founding partner of D'Orazio Peterson, having left a partnership at a large regional law firm to limit his practice and focus on helping people protect their families.


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