The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that employees who voluntarily cooperate with an employer’s internal investigations are protected by the anti-retaliation provisions of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, even if the employee didn’t initiate the investigation and did not file a formal charge.

In Crawford v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville & Davidson City, Vicky Crawford was asked by a human resources officer of the Metro School District, where Ms. Crawford had worked for 30 years, if she had witnessed any “inappropriate behavior” by Gene Hughes, the school district’s employee relations director. Although Crawford had never reported any harassment, she described several instances of sexually harassing behavior toward her by Hughes. Two other employees also reported being harassed by Hughes. The school district took no action against Hughes, however, but within a few months fired Crawford and the two other employees who had reported harassment. The district claimed that Crawford had been fired for embezzlement, although no charges were filed against her.

Crawford claimed she was fired in retaliation for the statements she made during the investigation and filed suit against the school district. The federal trial court and appellate court each held that Crawford’s conduct was not covered by either the opposition or participation clauses of the anti-retaliation provisions of Title VII. The Sixth Circuit stated that simply answering questions during an investigation was not sufficient to constitute opposition of discrimination or participation in an investigation, both of which are protected by Title VII. The court also found that because Crawford did not file a formal charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), she had not “participated” in an investigation under Title VII.

The Supreme Court disagreed, holding that Crawford’s actions satisfied the requirements of the “opposition” clause, notwithstanding the fact she had not filed a formal complaint. The court noted that an employee may oppose a supervisor’s action without taking aggressive action to complain about it or stop it, and that Crawford’s response to the human resource officer’s question and her description of her discomfort with Hughes’ actions was clearly a form of opposition. The Court declined to rule on whether or not her claim was protected by the “participation” clause, in light of its decision that she met the requirements of the “opposition” clause.