On January 26, 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court expanded the ability to sue for retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII contains an opposition clause that bars retaliation against individuals who oppose unlawful employment practices. The question presented to the Court in Crawford v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, Tennessee, No. 06-1595, was whether this protection extends to an employee who speaks out about discrimination, not on her own initiative but merely in answering questions during an employer’s internal investigation. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it does.

In 2002, the respondent, the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, Tennessee (“Metro”) conducted an internal investigation into rumors of sexual harassment by its employee relations director, Gene Hughes. In the course of its investigation, a Metro human resources officer interviewed the petitioner, Vicky Crawford, a 30-year Metro employee. Crawford had not complained about Hughes, but she participated in the investigation, answering candidly that she had witnessed “inappropriate behavior” and describing “louche goings-on” involving “gross clowning” and “sexually obnoxious” conduct by Hughes. Shortly after the conclusion of the investigation, Metro fired Crawford, for embezzlement, it claimed.

Crawford filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, followed by a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee, claiming that Metro unlawfully retaliated against her for reporting Hughes’s behavior during the company’s investigation, in violation of Title VII’s opposition clause. The District Court granted Metro’s motion for summary judgment, holding that Crawford could not sue under Title VII because she had not instigated or initiated any complaint. Rather, she had merely answered questions by investigators in an already-pending internal investigation, initiated by someone else. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed, finding that simply answering questions fell short of the opposition required by Title VII, taking the view that Title VII demands active, consistent opposition to warrant protection against retaliation.

The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed and reversed this decision, holding that the anti-retaliation provision of Title VII does extend to employees involved in internal company investigations. The Court reasoned that, to rule otherwise, employees like Crawford who report discrimination in response to an employer’s questions would have no remedy, and they would have good reason to keep quiet about Title VII offenses. Writing for the majority, Justice Souter stated that such a rule would undermine Title VII’s primary objective of avoiding harm to employees.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s January 26th ruling should put employers on heightened notice that they may well be subject to retaliation claims by an employee who never complains about discrimination but who provides information during an internal investigation. To avoid claims of retaliation, employers should continue to avoid retaliating against those who file formal complaints of discrimination as well as those who participate in internal investigations. We can expect the expansion of state anti-discrimination laws to follow.