An employee is protected from being fired in retaliation for answering questions during an employer’s investigation of suspected sexual harassment, the Supreme Court ruled on Monday, January 26, 2009.
The unanimous court ruled the federal civil rights law’s anti-retaliation provision for employees who report workplace sex or race discrimination also extended to an internal investigation of a supervisor or another worker.
“Nothing in the statute requires a freakish rule protecting 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,” Justice David Souter wrote in the opinion.
The ruling decided an important workplace issue. Federal government lawyers said witnesses and victims would be unwilling to cooperate in employer sexual harassment investigations if they faced potential punishment like the loss of their jobs.
The decision followed the position taken by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency that enforces laws against workplace discrimination and harassment.
The ruling was a victory for Vicky Crawford, who had been a payroll coordinator for more than 30 years for the public school system in Nashville and Davidson County in Tennessee.
In late 2001, Gene Hughes was hired as the school district’s employee relations director, a job that made him responsible for investigating all claims of discrimination and harassment.
In 2002, after several female employees complained of sexual harassment by Hughes, the assistant director of human resources began an investigation and interviewed several employees who worked with Hughes, including Crawford.
Crawford told the assistant human resources director that Hughes asked to see her breasts on numerous occasions, grabbed his genitals in front of her and once pulled her head toward his crotch.
The investigation did not result in any disciplinary action against Hughes. A few months after taking part in the investigation, Crawford was suspended and then fired. Two other women who complained about sexual harassment by Hughes also were fired.
The school system fired Crawford after accusing her of drug use and embezzlement but Crawford called the accusations unfounded.
She sued on the grounds that the district had violated the federal civil rights law by firing her because she had disclosed the sexual harassment by Hughes.
Souter said Crawford was covered by the law because she had actively opposed the sexually obnoxious behavior by Hughes toward her, a decision that allows her lawsuit to go forward.