Employees Afforded Broad Protection Against Retaliation Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964.In the case of Crawford v. Metro. Govt. of Nashville and Davidson Co., Tenn., decided on January 26, 2009, the United States Supreme Court unanimously held that it is not necessary for an individual bringing a claim of retaliation against an employer for reporting workplace race or gender discrimination under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (the Act) to have spoken out about such discrimination on her own initiative.  Rather, if the employee discloses the discrimination through questions asked by an employer during an internal investigation, the employee is still  protected under the Act.

In the matter of Crawford v. Metro, Petitioner Crawford disclosed to her employer (Respondent) that she had been the victim of sexual harassment by another employee.  Respondent had been conducting an internal investigation due to rumors of sexual misconduct by this employee, and conducted an interview of  Petitioner wherein she disclosed the harassment.  Petitioner did not fire the employee alleged to be harassing, but rather fired Petitioner and two other employees who also reported misconduct during the investigation.

Petitioner filed suit claiming retaliation by her employer, but the District Court granted summary judgment to Respondent.  Because  Petitioner had not initiated the complaint but rather just answered questions during an internal investigation, she had not “opposed” the discrimination as required by the statute.  Also, participation in an investigation of an employer is protected under Sixth Circuit precedent.  The Sixth  Circuit affirmed, and the Supreme Court now reverses. 

The United States Supreme Court in Crawford held that the term “opposed” is broad enough to include a report of discrimination  resulting from an employer-initiated investigation.  Opposition is not limited  to an employee-initiated complaint, but can be done through answering  questions as well.  Justice Souter, who wrote the opinion, supports the Court’s decision with reference to the plain meaning of the term “opposed”,  other Circuit precedent, the purpose of the Act, and the need for setting judicious precedent for employees who speak up about discrimination.

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