Court Rules For Worker In Retaliation Case

The Supreme Court has ruled that some employees who are not filing their own complaints about sexual harassment are protected under the law in the same way as people who are making that claim. In this case, a Tennessee woman says she was dismissed by a public school system after she cooperated with the investigation of a claim being made by another employee. The unanimous ruling gives the fired woman the right to file a civil rights lawsuit.

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It is illegal retaliation for a company to fire a worker for cooperating in an internal investigation looking into allegations of sexual harassment. That is the unanimous ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court today. The decision plugs a major loophole in federal civil rights law. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG: Vicky Crawford worked for the Nashville, Tennessee, Metropolitan Government for 30 years. She was the payroll coordinator for the school system and in her last job evaluation had gotten the highest overall job performance rating. In 2002, she was asked to cooperate in an investigation of sexual harassment allegations made against a man named Gene Hughes who was director of employee relations. Crawford and two other women in the central office answered questions during the probe. They said that Hughes had frequently acted inappropriately, grabbing his crotch, touching them, and making lewd remarks.

Hughes, however, remained in his job. No formal action was taken against him. The three women, however, were all fired, each for alleged misconduct unrelated to the investigation. Crawford sued the city of Nashville for illegal retaliation, but her claim was thrown out by the lower courts because she had never brought a sexual harassment claim on her own. Thus the lower courts said she was not covered by the federal law that bans retaliation against those who, quote, "oppose discrimination or harassment in a workplace."

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously reversed. Writing for the court, Justice David Souter noted that both federal law and past Supreme Court decisions have encouraged employers to conduct internal investigations of sexual harassment and other discrimination complaints. The purpose of these investigations, the court has said, is both to protect employees and to deal with complaints before they become lawsuits. But if workers are afraid to cooperate for fear of losing their jobs, the court observed today, the civil rights laws will be seriously undermined.

What's more, the court said, under the literal wording of the existing law, a worker who answers questions put by an investigator has indeed taken action to oppose misconduct and is covered by the provision that bans retaliation. The court said there is nothing in the federal law that would require what the justices called a freakish rule that would protect an employee who reports sexual harassment on her own initiative, but would not protect an employee who reports the same harassment when asked about it by her boss. Eric Schnapper, who represented Vicky Crawford in the Supreme Court, said the court is sending a clear message about retaliation.

Professor ERIC SCHNAPPER (Law, University of Washington): This is the third time in a year the Supreme Court has had a retaliation case and emphatically directed the lower courts that these sorts of claims are supposed to be taken seriously.

TOTENBERG: Ray Van(ph), who filed a brief in the case on behalf of an employer group, notes that retaliation claims at the EEOC are accelerating dramatically.

Ms. RAY VAN (Attorney): The court's decision will potentially open the floodgates. That's really the risk here that employers are going to have to defend many more potentially frivolous retaliation claims.

TOTENBERG: Eric Schnapper disagrees.

Professor SCHNAPPER: This is a good decision for employers. At the end of the day, employers want the victims of sexual harassment to come forward and complain about it. That the employer in this case was asking for the right to fire people who object to sexual harassment made no sense at all. It would be like the police chief objecting to the witness protection program.

TOTENBERG: Today's decision does not end the Crawford retaliation lawsuit. The case was thrown out by the lower courts before any jury trial took place. So the case now goes back to the lower courts for further action. NPR called the chief counsel for the city for reaction today. Those calls were not returned. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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