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Supreme Court: Title VII Prohibits Retaliation Against Employees For Participating In Employer's Harassment Investigation


January 28, 2009

On January 26, 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Title VII prohibits retaliation against an employee for disclosing a supervisor's alleged sexual harassment in response to the employer's internal investigation. Crawford v. Metro Gov't of Nashville & Davidson County, Tenn.

The plaintiff, Vicky Crawford, was a 30-year employee of the Metropolitan Government of Nashville & Davidson County, Tennessee ("Metro"). Metro suspended and later fired Crawford for allegedly mishandling public funds. Shortly before her termination, Metro questioned Crawford as part of an internal investigation of sexual harassment allegedly committed by the Metro school district's human relations director, Glen Hughes. In response, Crawford stated that Hughes engaged in inappropriate sexual conduct toward her. After she was fired, Crawford filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC and later sued, alleging that she was fired in retaliation for cooperating with Metro's internal investigation.

The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee granted summary judgment to Metro. The court reasoned that because Crawford merely responded to questions in the course of an already pending internal harassment investigation, she had not actively "opposed" unlawful conduct under Title VII. Thus, her responses were not "protected activity" under Title VII's anti-retaliation provision. Crawford appealed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which affirmed the District Courts ruling.

Reversing the lower courts' rulings, the Supreme Court rejected the Sixth Circuit's finding that "opposition" under Title VII requires "active, consistent" resistance to alleged harassment. Rather, the Court held that "opposition" has a broad meaning, extending to conduct such as refusing a supervisor's order to fire someone for discriminatory reasons or, in Crawford's case, disclosing sexual harassment in response to an employer's inquiries.

Although it is not surprising that the Court reversed the Sixth Circuit's decision, the opinion written by Justice Souter may result in an expansion of Title VII's anti-retaliation provision to conduct that previously may not have been protected. Justice Alito raised this concern in a concurring opinion, noting that the Court's opinion could be read to extend Title VII protection to an employee's "silent opposition" to discrimination, or to informal "water cooler" discussions with co-workers. At a minimum, this case suggests that employers should be cautious when taking adverse action against an employee who has recently participated in an internal discrimination investigation.

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