U.S. Supreme Court Clarifies Anti-Retaliation Rules

By James Denis

Feb. 27, 2009

After repeated complaints that Gene Hughes, an employee relations director, was allegedly sexually harassing female employees, the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County (known as Metro) conducted an internal investigation. Vicky Crawford, a payroll coordinator for 30 years, was interviewed as part of the sexual-harassment investigation. When asked by the Metro about alleged harassment by Hughes, Crawford told Metro’s human resources manager that Hughes had asked to see her breasts on numerous occasions, grabbed his genitals in front of her and once pulled her head toward his genitals.

   Metro fired Crawford, alleging embezzlement. No action was taken against Hughes.

   Crawford filed suit in U.S. District Court in Tennessee under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, claiming that Metro retaliated against her for reporting on Hughes’ behavior. The court found in favor of Metro, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit in Cincinnati affirmed, holding that the “opposition” clause of Title VII demanded “active, consistent” opposing activities, whereas Crawford had not initiated any complaint prior to the investigation.

   On review, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed and remanded, ruling that Title VII’s anti-retaliation 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. Crawford’s statement is covered by the “opposition” clause, as a disapproving account of Hughes’ “sexually obnoxious” behavior toward her represented “active, consistent” opposition to unlawful actions. Crawford v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, Tennessee, No. 06-1595 (1/26/09).

    Impact: Title VII covers an employee’s report of discrimination, whether on his own accord or in response to the employer’s internal investigation of such matters.

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