U.S. Supreme Court sides with worker in retaliation case

By Chris Rizo | Jan 27, 2009

U.S. Supreme Court building

David Souter

WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline)--Companies can be held liable for firing workers after they cooperate in sexual harassment investigations, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday.

The unanimous decision says federal civil rights laws protect workers from retaliation even when the workers have not personally complained about on the job discrimination.

The case was originally brought by Vicky Crawford, a 30-year employee of the Nashville, Tenn., schools system. In 2002, she spoke up in an internal investigation into possible misconduct by Gene Hughes, the school district's employee relations director.

Court papers say Crawford complained about Hughes's workplace actions, including grabbing his genitals and asking Crawford to show him her breasts.

After the investigation, Crawford and two other women who had made accusations against Hughes were fired. The school district said they fired Crawford for embezzlement, which was not pursued by authorities.

Crawford filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The justices ruled Crawford could sue under a provision of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits retaliation against people who opposed unlawful employment practices.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati dismissed Crawford's case before trial, saying that protections afforded by the Civil Rights Act require a more vigorous opposition to unlawful
workplace behavior than just cooperating with in internal inquiry.

Associate Supreme Court Justice David Souter, writing for the high court, disagreed.

"Countless people were known to 'oppose' slavery before emancipation, or are said to 'oppose' capital punishment today without writing public letters, taking to the streets or resisting the government," Souter wrote.

"Nothing in the statute requires a freakish rule protecting an employee who reports discrimination on her own initiative but not one who reports the same discrimination in the same words when her boss asks a question," Souter added.

The case is Crawford v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, Tenn., No. 06-1595.

From Legal Newsline: Reach reporter Chris Rizo at chrisrizo@legalnewsline.com.

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