In 2009’s Crawford decision, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that an employee who participates in an employer’s harassment or discrimination investigation as a third-party witness, falls within federal anti-retaliation protections. However, the Crawford court never addressed whether the plaintiff alleging retaliation in such situations must show that he or she maintained a reasonable belief that they provided information that showed a violation of federal law. Earlier this month, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals declined to adopt a standard different from the reasonable belief one that applies to an employee’s direct complaint of illegal conduct.
In EEOC v. Rite Way Serv., Inc., the plaintiff participated in an investigation involving sexual harassment complaints by a co-worker against their supervisor. The plaintiff alleged that she was terminated shortly after confirming some of the complaining employee’s allegations. She filed suit, alleging retaliatory termination under Title VII. The district court dismissed the complaint, concluding that the plaintiff did not have a reasonable belief that the information she provided the company involved sexual harassment.
On appeal, the EEOC argued that in retaliation cases involving employees who participate in investigations of discrimination or harassment, the “reasonable belief” standard does not apply. Instead, the agency proposed a lower standard that would apply to any relevant information provided by the employee, even if they did not believe the conduct violated federal law. The Fifth Circuit rejected this argument, holding that the traditional reasonable belief standard applies to all forms of retaliation claims.
Despite this conclusion, the court reversed the district court and remanded the matter for trial. The Fifth Circuit concluded that the plaintiff’s comments during the investigation, about the supervisor admiring the complaining employee’s rear end, could reflect a reasonable belief, even if in reality, they would not constitute a hostile working environment under Title VII. This result demonstrates that adverse employment action taken against anyone participating in internal investigations runs the risk of a subsequent retaliation claim.