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Fifth Circuit Marks Limits of Associational Retaliation

Jo Aldridge used to work for UBS Financial Services (UBS) until she complained of pregnancy discrimination. Her complaint ultimately caused her to resign her employment, and she settled her claims with UBS.

James Simmons, Aldridge’s dad, worked for Prelle Financial Group, “a third-party wholesaler of life-insurance products to clients of UBS.” He often worked out of UBS offices. After Aldridge’s complaint, Simmon’s working relationship with UBS significantly deteriorated. He lost access to UBS’s office and was forbidden from doing business with its clients. Simmons sued UBS, arguing he was being retaliated against in violation of Title VII. UBS sought to dismiss his case arguing that Simmons was not protected by Title VII because he was not a UBS employee.

Noting that this was a case of first impression for a federal appellate court, the Fifth Circuit held that Title VII did not protect Simmons. In reaching its conclusion, the court compared it to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP. In Thompson, the plaintiff and his fiancée worked for the same company. The fiancée had filed a sex discrimination claim against their mutual employer. The company fired Thompson in retaliation for his fiancée’s complaint. The Supreme Court held that this termination violated Title VII’s prohibition on retaliation. The plaintiff had standing to sue under Title VII because he was within the “zone-of-interests” standard. He was an employee of the company, and Thompson’s termination was intended to harm his fiancée. Thus, he was protected even though he had not engaged in protected activity. However, in Simmons’ case, the appellate court found the fact that Simmons was not employed by UBS to doom his claim. “The zone of interests that Title VII protects is limited to those in employment relationships with the defendant.”