Workers who cooperate with their employers’ internal investigations of discrimination may not be fired in retaliation for implicating colleagues or superiors, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously last week.
The justices on Jan. 26 held that a longtime employee of the Metro Nashville school district in Tennessee can pursue a civil rights lawsuit over her firing.
The court voted to reverse a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit that the anti-retaliation provision of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not apply to employees who merely cooperate with an internal probe rather than complain on their own or take part in a formal investigation. (“High Court’s First Week Includes School District Harassment Case,” Oct. 15, 2008.)
The Cincinnati-based court was alone among federal appeals courts in its narrow view of the civil rights law, which was already understood to bar retaliation against people who complained about harassment and other discrimination.
“The question here is whether this protection extends to an employee who speaks out about discrimination not on her own initiative, but in answering questions during an employer’s internal investigation. We hold that it does,” Justice David Souter said for the high court in ruling on Crawford v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, Tenn. (Case No. 06-1595).
Vicky Crawford, a payroll specialist for the 75,000-student Metro Nashville district, was fired in 2003 after more than 30 years as an employee of the district.
She did not file a complaint about harassment by a school official. But she said she had been subjected to unwanted sexual advances when she was interviewed by investigators for the school system who were looking into other employees’ allegations against the director of employee relations.
Ms. Crawford related instances in which the official, Gene Hughes, allegedly put his crotch up to her office window and entered her office, grabbed her head, and pulled it to his crotch, Justice Souter said in his opinion.
The school system took no action against Mr. Hughes. Ms. Crawford was fired months later. She filed a federal lawsuit, but it was dismissed by a federal judge and upheld on appeal.
‘Win for Civil Rights’
The Bush administration backed Ms. Crawford in her appeal to the Supreme Court. The local and state affiliates of the National Education Association also backed her case.
Ann Steiner, Ms. Crawford’s lawyer, said the ruling was a “great win for civil rights.”
“It means from this point on, no matter who instigates an investigation or conversation about harassment, if someone communicates that they’ve been harassed, they’ll be protected under the retaliation provisions,” Ms. Steiner said.
The school system and business interests argued in court that if employees like Ms. Crawford were covered by Title VII’s anti-retaliation provisions, employers would refrain from launching internal investigations. The National School Boards Association supported that position.
“The argument is unconvincing,” Justice Souter said. Employers already have strong incentives to “ferret out” discriminatory activity as a way to limit their liability, he said.
The civil rights law’s anti-retaliation section protects employees who complain about, or oppose, discrimination as well as those who participate in formal investigations. The court limited its ruling to the opposition clause and did not pass judgment on whether Ms. Crawford also was protected under the participation clause.
The school system has said that Ms. Crawford was fired over irregularities in her job as payroll coordinator.
The case is being sent back to the appeals court to consider those issues.
A version of this article appeared in the February 04, 2009 edition of Education Week as High Court Sides With Workers Who Cooperate in Probes