Justices Back Worker In Retaliation Case

By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled yesterday that a federal anti-discrimination law protects employees from retaliation when they cooperate with internal investigations of harassment.

The court sided with Vicky S. Crawford, who said she was fired from her longtime job in charge of payroll for the Nashville school system after she answered questions in an ongoing investigation into what the court termed the "louche goings-on" involving a supervisor.

Crawford said the boss, Metro School District employee relations director Gene Hughes, had put his crotch against her office window and once pulled her head toward his groin.

The school district's investigation did not recommend disciplinary actions against Hughes, but Crawford and two others who testified against him were later fired over unrelated matters.

Crawford filed suit, saying her firing was retaliation. But lower courts said the federal anti-retaliation law, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, did not protect Crawford because she had not "instigated or initiated" the complaint, and instead had merely answered questions in a case already underway.

The Supreme Court said the district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit misread the law.

"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 H. Souter wrote.

The ruling was the latest case in which the court has sided with employees who sue for retaliation, a position somewhat at odds with the pro-business label the court has received under Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.

Kevin Russell, a workplace rights lawyer who practices before the court, said it was notable that in all but one of those cases -- including the one involving Crawford -- the government sided with the plaintiffs.

"But it does tend to discredit the view that this is a reflexively pro-business or pro-employer court," Russell said.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, agreed with the outcome of Crawford's case but wrote separately to say that the decision should not extend to employees who might oppose workplace discrimination or harassment but not actively take a role in any investigation of it.

And Souter noted that the county, which said Crawford was fired for fiscal improprieties, could defend its action in other ways when the case is returned to lower courts.

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