On January 26, 2009, the United States Supreme Court expanded the rights of employees to sue for retaliation. Title VII protects employees from retaliation when the employee opposes any unlawful practice or when the employee participates in an investigation, proceeding or hearing under the law. In Crawford v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville, the Court expanded this law to include employees who express their opposition to alleged discrimination during internal investigations of discrimination and harassment.
In Crawford, the employer correctly investigated claims of sexual harassment by conducting an investigation. During her interview, Crawford complained about alleged sexual harassment toward her by the supervisor being investigated. Several months later, Nashville terminated her employment for alleged misconduct. She sued, alleging retaliation. The lower courts dismissed her claim and granted summary judgment to Nashville, because she had not previously filed a complaint against the supervisor. The Supreme Court disagreed, stating that an employee need not actual file a complaint to be protected by Title VII. An employee may merely communicate a belief that a violation of law occurred. As a result, the court remanded the case to the lower court for a hearing.
According to Alan M. Kaplan, this decision has important implications for employers who properly investigate claims of harassment and discrimination. As soon as an employer talks with an employee and the employee complains, the employee is protected by Title VII. Therefore, an employee has the right to sue after receiving any adverse employment action taking place following the investigation. As a result, employers need to take several actions to protect themselves from suit and from liability, if the employee sues. One of these actions is ensuring that later action is for legitimate business reasons that are documented and communicated to the employee.