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January 27, 2009 | Law Alert

Crawford v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, Tennessee (January 27, 2009)

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U.S. Supreme Court Extends Anti-Retaliation Protections of Title VII to Employees Who Simply Participate in Employer’s Investigation of Another Employee’s Harassment Complaint

In a unanimous decision in Crawford v. opposed any practice made an unlawful employment practice by this subchapter.”

The question presented to the Supreme Court was whether simply disclosing an act of harassment in the context of the investigation of another employee’s complaint constitutes “oppos[ing]” an unlawful practice, or whether – as the court of appeals had held – opposition within the meaning of the provisions requires something more assertive. The Court unanimously concluded that the ordinary meaning of “oppose” includes giving a “disapproving account” of unlawful behavior, even if the employee takes no further action on her own to seek to stop or remedy the conduct.

Accepting the rule set forth in the EEOC’s Compliance Manual, the Court concluded 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 alwaysMetropolitan Government ofNashville and Davidson County, Tennessee, the U.S. Supreme Court adopted an expansive construction of Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision holding that it protects individuals who simply participate in an employer’s investigation of another employee’s claim of harassment or discrimination, even if that employee made no complaint of her own. The case arose when the employer, investigating rumors of sexual harassment by a supervisor, asked the petitioner, Vicky Crawford, whether she had ever witnessed any inappropriate behavior by the supervisor. When she told the employer about a series of harassing acts by the supervisor directed toward her, the employer fired Crawford. In contrast, the employer took no disciplinary action against the supervisor. Crawford filed suit under the anti-retaliation provision of Title VII, which prohibits an employer from terminating a worker because she “has constitutes the employee’s opposition to the activity.” The Court found that a contrary rule that required the worker to engage in “active, consistent” behavior in order to engage in protected opposition would be inconsistent with common usage. The Court noted, for example, that one can “oppose capital punishment” without doing anything active to end it – and that the contrary understanding would produce 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.”

This publication is intended for general information purposes only and does not constitute nor is it intended to constitute legal advice. None of the material is intended to imply or establish standards of care applicable to any attorney in any particular circumstance. The reader must consult with counsel to determine how the concepts and decisions discussed herein may apply to specific circumstances.

As a survey of jury verdicts makes clear, retaliation claims often engender larger damages awards, including awards of punitive damages, than do claims for the alleged underlying harassment or discrimination that engendered the retaliation. All employers should ensure that managers at all levels who participate in or become aware of investigations of alleged harassment or discrimination understand the importance of avoiding any conduct toward those who participate in the investigation that could be construed as retaliatory.

This publication is intended for general information purposes only and does not constitute nor is it intended to constitute legal advice. None of the material is intended to imply or establish standards of care applicable to any attorney in any particular circumstance. The reader must consult with counsel to determine how the concepts and decisions discussed herein may apply to specific circumstances.

Practice Area: Employment
Attorney: Douglas J. Melton

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