Earlier this week, the U.S. Supreme Court released an opinion in Crawford v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, Tennessee. In this case, the employer, a school district in Tennessee, conducted an internal investigation into allegations of sexual harassment against its employee relations director, Mr. Hughes. Employee interviews were conducted in connection with the investigation. When the plaintiff, Ms. Crawford, was interviewed, she informed the school district that Mr. Hughes had sexually harassed her. Following the investigation, the school district took no action against Mr. Hughes but fired Ms. Crawford, alleging embezzlement.
Ms. Crawford filed suit against the school district, claiming that she was retaliated against in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII, which prohibits sexual discrimination and harassment, also makes it unlawful for “an employer to discriminate against any employee who . . . has opposed any practice made an unlawful employment practice by this subchapter.” The school district’s motion for summary judgment was granted by the district court and upheld by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals on the grounds that Ms. Crawford did not “oppose” the sexual harassment because she did not proactively complain about it or file a charge with the EEOC, but merely responded to questions asked during an internal company investigation.
Reversing the Sixth Circuit’s decision, the Supreme Court held that an employee who speaks out about discrimination during an internal company investigation is protected under the anti-retaliation provision of Title VII. The Court stated that if “an employee’s reporting discrimination in answer to an employer’s questions could be penalized with no remedy, prudent employees would have a good reason to keep quiet about Title VII offenses.” The Court did not address the employer’s defenses, including its allegation of embezzlement, because they were not addressed by the lower courts.
The Court’s opinion does not suggest whether an employee’s statements must be truthful in order to be protected under the opposition clause of Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision. However, in other cases interpreting the opposition clause, courts have generally held that plaintiffs can establish a prima facie case of retaliation if they show that they had a reasonable belief that the employer engaged in an unlawful employment practice.