Law & Courts

High Court Sides With Workers Who Cooperate in Probes

By The Associated Press — February 03, 2009 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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

Events

English-Language Learners Webinar Helping English-Learners Through Improved Parent Outreach: Strategies That Work
Communicating with families is key to helping students thrive – and that’s become even more apparent during a pandemic that’s upended student well-being and forced constant logistical changes in schools. Educators should pay particular attention
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Mathematics Webinar
Addressing Unfinished Learning in Math: Providing Tutoring at Scale
Most states as well as the federal government have landed on tutoring as a key strategy to address unfinished learning from the pandemic. Take math, for example. Studies have found that students lost more ground
Content provided by Yup Math Tutoring
Classroom Technology Webinar Building Better Blended Learning in K-12 Schools
The pandemic and the increasing use of technology in K-12 education it prompted has added renewed energy to the blended learning movement as most students are now learning in school buildings (and will likely continue

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Law & Courts Justice Dept. to Pay $127.5M to Parkland Massacre Victims' Families
Attorneys for 16 of the 17 killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland said they had reached a confidential monetary settlement.
Terry Spencer, Miami Herald
2 min read
In this Feb. 15, 2018, file photo, law enforcement officers block off the entrance to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., following a deadly shooting at the school.
In this Feb. 15, 2018, file photo, law enforcement officers block off the entrance to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., following a deadly shooting at the school.
Wilfredo Lee/AP Photo
Law & Courts Can Public Money Go to Religious Schools? A Divisive Supreme Court Case Awaits
The justices will weigh Maine's exclusion of religious schools from its "tuitioning" program for students from towns without high schools.
13 min read
The Carson family pictured outside Bangor Christian School in Bangor, Maine on Nov. 5, 2021.
Institute for Justice senior attorney Michael E. Bindas, left, accompanies Amy and David Carson who flank their daughter, Olivia, outside Bangor Christian Schools in Maine in early November. The Carsons are one of two families seeking to make religious schools eligible for Maine's tuition program for students from towns without high schools.
Linda Coan O’Kresik for Education Week
Law & Courts Students Expelled, Suspended for 'Slavery' Petition Sue District
The lawsuit claims the officials violated the students’ First Amendment, due process, and equal protection rights.
3 min read
Image of a gavel.
Marilyn Nieves/E+
Law & Courts Infowars' Alex Jones Ordered to Pay Damages to Sandy Hook Families in Defamation Lawsuits
The Sandy Hook families will have an opportunity to present to a jury the extent to which Alex Jones' hoax claims harmed them.
Zach Murdock, Hartford Courant
5 min read
Alex Jones speaks outside of the Dirksen Senate office building in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 5, 2018. The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday, April 5, 2021, declined to hear an appeal by the Infowars host and conspiracy theorist, who was fighting a Connecticut court sanction in a defamation lawsuit brought by relatives of some of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
Alex Jones speaks outside of the Dirksen Senate office building in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 5, 2018.
Jose Luis Magana/AP Photo