That’s What Friends Are For: Termination of Complaining Employee’s Friend May Be Retaliation

In a recent decision, a federal district court found in favor of an employee who alleged she was discharged in retaliation for her friend’s sexual harassment complaint. In EEOC v. Fred Fuller Oil Co. (D.N.H. 2014), the court denied the company’s request for summary judgment allowing the case to move forward. This finding potentially expands the types of relationships that could trigger retaliation claims.  

Beverly Mulcahey alleged she was fired after working for Fuller Oil for six years because her close friend and co-worker, Nichole Wilkins, filed a sexual harassment complaint against the owner. Wilkins claimed Fred Fuller subjected her to sexually explicit comments and fondled her. Mulcahey claims she too was subjected to Fuller’s sexual comments during her employment.

After Wilkins resigned, Mulcahey claimed that Fuller began questioning her about her contact with Wilkins. Three weeks after Fuller discovered Wilkins was filing a complaint with the EEOC, Mulcahey was discharged. Mulcahey contends she told the company she thought the termination was “because of” her friendship with Wilkins, but she received no response.

In Fuller, the judge cited a previous U.S. Supreme Court decision Thompson v. North American Stainless LP (U.S. 2011), which held Title VII’s prohibition against retaliation applied to an employee fired shortly after his fiancée filed a harassment complaint against the company. The Supreme Court did not “identify a fixed class of relationships for which third-party reprisals are unlawful” so the Fuller court reasoned Mulcahey’s friendship with Wilkins presented a “fact-specific gray area.” 

Retaliation includes action taken by employers that could dissuade a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination. Such adverse actions include more than workplace-related or employment-related acts. Employers are encouraged to contact MSEC before taking action that could be perceived as retaliation against an employee.