January 26, 2009
Supreme Court Again Expands Retaliation Claims Under Title VII
On January 26, 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case of Crawford v. Metro Gov't of Nashville, a case which originated in Tennessee and went through the Sixth Circuit. In its opinion, the Court further expanded retaliation claim protection for employees.
In short, the plaintiff in Crawford was not the person who was making a claim for sexual harassment. Rather, her co-worker made such a claim, and in the process of investigating, the employer's human resources manager interviewed Crawford, who told the employer that she had witnessed several examples of inappropriate behavior by the alleged harasser over a course of years.
After the investigation was concluded, the employer took no action toward the alleged harasser, but it terminated the employment of the person claiming sexual harassment and Crawford, supposedly for embezzlement. Crawford sued, claiming that her termination was in retaliation for "opposing" the unlawful conduct.
The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of Crawford's retaliation claim, holding that "opposing" unlawful conduct requires more than simply speaking out during an interview, not on the employee's own initiative. The Sixth Circuit held that "opposition" requires "active, consistent opposing activities," which were not present in this case because Crawford did not come forward of her own initiative, but instead merely answered questions in an interview initiated by the employer.
The Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Sixth Circuit, noting that any time an employee communicates to the employer a belief that the employer has engaged in discrimination, that communication "virtually always constitutes the employee's opposition to the activity." Noting that individuals can "oppose" capital punishment without writing public letters, taking to the streets or resisting the government, the Supreme Court held that Crawford had engaged in protected activity, so her case should proceed to trial.
Justices Alito and Thomas wrote a concurring opinion which clarified that the Court was not going so far as to say that "opposing" under Title VII would necessarily include merely holding an opinion that an action was discriminatory, without something more. Therefore, in sum, the protections against retaliation under Title VII were broadened by this opinion.