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High court clears way for more retaliation suits

by on
in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,Human Resources

On Jan. 26, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a major decision that some attorneys worry will open the litigation floodgates for employees who believe they have suffered retaliation.

The high court unanimously ruled that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects from retaliation employees who cooperate with their employers’ internal harassment investigations.

The case is Crawford v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County.

In this case, Vicki Crawford was asked to testify in an internal hearing on a sexual harassment complaint filed by a co-worker against Crawford’s boss. Crawford testified about sexually inappropriate acts her boss had committed. The employer, the Nashville & Davidson County school district, concluded the supervisor’s behavior was inappropriate, but did not constitute sexual harassment. The school district ordered additional sexual harassment training.

If the school district had been content to stop there, it probably would have had no more problems. But then the district fired three women—including Crawford—who had testified against the supervisor. Crawford filed a retaliation complaint, and the district moved to have the case dismissed.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act clearly protects employees who have filed EEOC complaints. However, the law doesn’t address what employers may or may not do to employees involved in internal complaints.

A federal district court sided with the school district, claiming Title VII protected only those who have filed complaints with the EEOC. The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed.

In ruling for Crawford, the Supreme Court followed the precedent it set in two other recent cases that have defined retaliation law: Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth and Faragher v. Boca Raton. Both cases affirmed the government’s interest in encouraging employees to report employer misdeeds without fear of being punished.

Justice David Souter, who authored the Crawford decision, wrote, "If ... an employee who reported discrimination in answering an employer’s questions could be penalized with no remedy, prudent employees would have a good reason to keep quiet about Title VII offenses against themselves or against others."

Ron Chapman, Jr., an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in Dallas, said the decision wasn’t surprising given the facts of the case. However, he cautioned that it could trigger more litigation.

“The key question,” Chapman said, “is how the ruling will be interpreted and applied to different fact patterns in the future. Will other forms of passive opposition suffice to establish a claim for retaliation? Both the concurring opinion and a strict reading of the majority opinion suggest the answer is no, but you can bet that aggressive plaintiffs’ lawyers will try to extrapolate this ruling to protect other forms of conduct that as of now are insufficient to establish a retaliation claim.”

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