September 23, 2019

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Title VII Protects Employees Who Cooperate With Employer Investigations

The U.S. Supreme Court recently issued a significant decision favorable to employees regarding the scope of the retaliation provision of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (“Title VII”). In Crawford v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, Tennessee, 2009 U.S. LEXIS 870 (2009), the Court held that Title VII protects an employee from retaliation for reporting discrimination in the course of an employer’s internal investigation. According to the Court, an employer may be liable for violating Title VII by retaliating against an employee even if the employee only spoke out about alleged discrimination in response to the employer’s questions.

The Facts

Plaintiff Vicky Crawford worked for defendant Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, Tennessee (“Metro”) for thirty years. In 2002, Metro initiated an internal investigation of rumors that the employee relations director of the Metro School District, Gene Hughes, had engaged in sexually inappropriate conduct. As part of Metro’s internal investigation, Metro human resources officer Veronica Frazier interviewed Crawford. During the interview, Frazier asked whether Crawford had seen Hughes engage in any “‘inappropriate behavior.’” Crawford responded by describing several instances in which he had exhibited such behavior. She said that Hughes had once answered her greeting, “‘what’s up?,’” by “‘grabbing his crotch’” and answering, “‘[y]ou know what’s up.’” Crawford also allegedly told Frasier that he had “repeatedly ‘put his crotch up to [her] window.’” Crawford also reported that, on one occasion, he had entered her office and “‘grabbed her head and pulled it to his crotch.’” In addition to Crawford, two other employees also disclosed during the investigation that Hughes had engaged in sexually inappropriate conduct. At the end of the investigation, Metro “took no action against Hughes,” but terminated the employment of Crawford and the other two employees who had raised allegations against him. According to Metro, it discharged Crawford for embezzlement. After filing a charge against Metro with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), Crawford filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee. She alleged that Metro violated Title VII by firing her in retaliation for reporting Hughes’ conduct.

Title VII

Under Title VII, two types of retaliation constitute an “unlawful employment practice.” Specifically, an employer may not discriminate against an employee because the employee has: (1) “opposed” a violation of Title VII; or (2) “made a charge, testified, assisted, or participated in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing” under Title VII. The first clause is known as the “opposition clause,” and the second is known as the “participation clause.”

The District Court and Sixth Circuit

The district court granted summary judgment for Metro. The court held that Crawford could not maintain a retaliation claim under the opposition clause, because she had not initiated a complaint. Instead, she had only answered questions regarding an investigation Metro had already started. The court further held that Crawford could not maintain a claim under the participation clause, because the clause only protected an employee who participated in an employer’s internal investigation conducted pursuant to a pending EEOC Charge. Metro’s investigation was not conducted “pursuant to” an EEOC charge and, therefore, the court held that this clause did not apply. Crawford appealed. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit followed the reasoning of the district court and affirmed. The U.S. Supreme Court granted Crawford’s petition for a writ of certiorari.

The Supreme Court

The Supreme Court reversed. Relying upon the ordinary meaning of the word, “oppose,” the Court held that Crawford had presented sufficient evidence to support a claim of retaliation under Title VII’s opposition clause. The Court characterized the account of Hughes’ behavior that Crawford provided to Frasier as an “ostensibly disapproving account of sexually obnoxious behavior toward her by a fellow employee.” According to the Court, providing this account amounted to opposing it. In fact, the Court observed, an employee’s communication to an employer expressing the employee’s belief that the employer has engaged in discriminatory conduct, virtually always constitutes opposition to the conduct. The Court further observed that “a person can ‘oppose’ by responding to someone else’s question just as surely as by provoking the discussion.” The Court described as “freakish” a rule that would protect 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.” Metro argued that “lower[ing] the bar for retaliation claims” so as to cover less than “‘active’” and “‘consistent’” opposition will discourage employers from investigating potential discrimination. The Court rejected this argument, explaining that sufficient incentive exists for employers to investigate potential discrimination. In particular, doing so demonstrates that they exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct a hostile work environment, thereby entitling them, under certain circumstances, to assert an affirmative defense to such claims. Having concluded that Crawford could proceed under Title VII’s opposition clause, the Court did not reach the issue of whether she could bring a claim under the participation clause. The Court reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeals and remanded the case.

 

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© Copyright 2019 Sills Cummis & Gross P.C.

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