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Supreme Court Applies Title VII Retaliation Bar to Participation in Internal Investigation

    Client Alerts
  • January 30, 2009

Under Title VII, employers may not retaliate against an employee who opposes discriminatory practices, or who participates in an investigation of a discrimination claim.  In Crawford v. Metropolitan Gov’t of Nashville, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a retaliation claim made by an employee who participated in an internal sexual harassment investigation conducted by her employer.  Ms. Crawford did not complain of sexual harassment, but when asked during the course of the investigation, she confirmed that she too had been harassed by the accused employee.  She claimed that she was later terminated in retaliation for providing this information.

The Sixth Circuit rejected Ms. Crawford’s retaliation claim under both the opposition and participation clauses of Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision.  The court said that she had not opposed any illegal activity, but had only answered questions posed to her.  She did not participate in any matter covered under Title VII, because no EEOC Charge had been filed at the time of the investigation.

As expected, the Supreme Court had little trouble rejecting these arguments, unanimously reversing the Sixth Circuit.  The Court found that Ms. Crawford’s answers to the investigator’s questions constituted “opposition” under Title VII.  The Supreme Court read this term broadly, concluding that disclosure of information in response to a question serves as opposition to illegal activity.  The court refused to affirm a rule that would only recognize the same disclosure of information when it is made in the form of a complaint, rather than as answers to questions posed to the employee.  Based on this reasoning, the Court did not reach the question of whether this activity also fell within the participation clause.

Crawford represents the latest in a line of Supreme Court decisions that read anti-retaliation provisions of Title VII and other federal laws in broad terms.  The Court has repeatedly indicated its unwillingness to use technical interpretations of these laws to override perceived Congressional intent to extend maximum protections to whistleblowers.  This decision reinforces the importance for employers to demonstrate clear and demonstrable business reasons whenever they take adverse action against an employee who could be deemed to have engaged in protected activity