The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that workers who cooperate with their employers’ internal investigations of discrimination can’t be fired in retaliation for implicating colleagues or superiors. The justices without a dissent held that a longtime school system employee in Tennessee can pursue a civil rights lawsuit over her firing. The court voted to reverse the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling that the anti-retaliation provision of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act 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.
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. Justice David Souter said for the court:
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.
Vicky Crawford was fired in 2003 after more than 30 years as an employee of the school system for Nashville, Tennessee, and Davidson County. She did not file a complaint about harassment by a school official. But Ms. Crawford 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 specific instances of sexual advance by a school official.
The school system took no action against the man and Ms. Crawford was fired months later. She filed a federal lawsuit, but it was dismissed by a federal judge and upheld on appeal. The Bush Administration backed Ms. Crawford in her appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Ann Steiner, Ms. Crawford’s lawyer, said the ruling is a “great win for civil rights,” adding:
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.
The school system and business interests argued that if employees like Ms. Crawford are covered by Title VII’s anti-retaliation provisions, employers will refrain from launching internal investigations. Fortunately, the justices didn’t buy that argument. Justice Souter wrote that employers already have strong incentives to “ferret out” discriminatory activity as a way to limit their liability.
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 is protected under the participation clause. The school system has said that she had been fired over irregularities in her job as payroll coordinator. It also made other arguments defending itself from the retaliation claim. The case is being sent back to the appeals court to consider those issues.
Source: Associated Press
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