The U.S. Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects an employee from retaliation even when the employee merely reports discrimination in response to an employer's questions during an internal investigation of harassment complaints made by others.
In Crawford v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville, a school district was investigating complaints of harassment by several employees against its employee relations director, Gene Hughes. During the investigation, a human resources representative interviewed several employees who worked with Hughes, including plaintiff. When asked whether plaintiff had ever seen Hughes act inappropriately, plaintiff replied 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. Although the school district did not take any disciplinary action against Hughes as a result of the investigation, a few months later, plaintiff was suspended and subsequently fired for alleged drug use and embezzlement. The school district also terminated two other women who complained about sexual harassment by Hughes.
The lower appellate court had found that plaintiff was not protected against retaliation under Title VII because she did not instigate or initiate any complaint prior to answering questions in the employer's internal investigation, and did not take any further action to oppose discrimination prior to her termination. The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed, reasoning that an employee can "oppose" activity that is illegal under Title VII "by responding to someone else's questions just as surely as by provoking the discussion, and 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."
This decision underscores the need to ensure that there is no retaliation against an employee who participates in investigations into allegedly unlawful workplace conduct, whether or not the employee is the original complainant.