On January 26, 2009, the United States Supreme Court ruled that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) prohibits retaliation against employees who speak out about harassment while answering questions as part of a company’s internal harassment investigation.
The case, Crawford v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, involved a sexual harassment investigation by the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, Tennessee (Metro). Metro began investigating rumors of sexual harassment by one of its employee, Gene Hughes. During the investigation, a human resources representative asked an employee, Vicky Crawford, if she had witnessed any inappropriate behavior by Mr. Hughes. In response, Ms. Crawford described several examples of Mr. Hughes sexually harassing conduct toward her. During the investigation, two other Metro employees also indicated that Mr. Hughes had sexually harassed them.
Metro took no disciplinary action against Hughes. However, shortly after it completed the investigation, it fired Ms. Crawford and the two other women who accused Mr. Hughes of sexual harassment. Metro claims it fired Ms. Crawford for embezzlement.
After Metro fired her, Ms. Crawford filed a charge of discrimination with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and eventually sued. She alleged that Metro fired her in retaliation for reporting Mr. Hughes’ sexual harassment.
The United States District Court dismissed Ms. Crawford’s case, finding that her complaints of sexual harassment were not protected by Title VII because she did not initiate the complaint, but rather answered questions during an investigation initiated by her employer. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit agreed with the District Court, and affirmed the dismissal of Ms. Crawford’s case. However, the United States Supreme Court reversed that decision, reinstated Ms. Crawford’s case, and sent it back to the District Court for further proceedings.
In its legal analysis, the Supreme Court noted that Title VII includes two provisions that make it unlawful for an employer to retaliate against an employee who reports workplace race or gender discrimination. The first of those provisions, which the Supreme Court referred to as the “opposition clause,” makes it unlawful to retaliate against any employee because she opposed any practice that Title VII makes unlawful. The other anti-retaliation provision, which the Supreme Court referred to as the “participation clause,” makes it unlawful to retaliate against an employee because she filed a charge of discrimination, or because she testified, assisted, or participated in any investigation, proceeding or hearing pursuant to Title VII.
The Supreme Court based its decision in Crawford on the opposition clause, as opposed to the participation clause. The Court concluded that Ms. Crawford’s statements were made in opposition to Mr. Hughes’ sexual harassment since she expressed her disapproval with his behavior. In support of its position, the Supreme Court relied on an EEOC guideline which states that “‘[w]hen an employee communicates to her employer a belief that the employer has engaged in … a form of employment discrimination, that communication’ virtually always ‘constitutes the employee’s opposition to the activity.'” Notably, the Court indicated that protected opposition would include “refusing to follow a supervisor’s order to fire a junior worker for discriminatory reasons,” suggesting that the opposition protects employees who verbally or orally object to discrimination, but also to employees who refuse to participate in discriminatory practices.