Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it unlawful for an employer to discriminate against any employee who (1) opposes an unlawful employment practice (opposition clause), or (2) has made a charge, testified, assisted, or participated in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing (participation clause). The question before the U.S. Supreme Court in Crawford v. Metropolitan Govt. of Nashville, et al, No. 06-1595 (January 26, 2009) was whether these Title VII anti-retaliation protections cover employees who “report” discrimination or harassment during the course of an employer’s own internal investigation, when there is no administrative charge or lawsuit pending.
In 2002, a local government employer began looking into rumors of sexual harassment by the Metro School District’s Employee Relations Director. When a Metro HR officer asked an employee, Vicky Crawford, if she had witnessed any inappropriate behavior, Crawford described several instances of sexually harassing behavior by the Employee Relations Director. After her employment was later terminated for alleged embezzlement, Crawford claimed that her termination was, in fact, in retaliation for her “reporting” the alleged sexual harassment. Crawford filed a retaliation charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), followed by a federal lawsuit alleging unlawful discrimination.
Crawford lost in both the trial court and the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. Finding for the Defendants, the trial court held that Crawford could not satisfy the opposition clause because she had not “instigated or initiated any complaint.” Instead, the court reasoned that Plaintiff had “merely answered questions by investigators in an already pending investigation, initiated by someone else.” The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, adding that the opposition clause “demands active, consistent ‘opposing’ activities to warrant… protection against retaliation.” Both courts concluded that her claim also failed under the participation clause because her participation in Defendants’ internal investigation was not pursuant to a pending EEOC Charge.
The United States Supreme Court Rules in Crawford’s Favor
In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court reversed the ruling of the court of appeals and reinstated Crawford’s lawsuit. Because the term “oppose” is undefined by statute, the court found that it must carry its “ordinary dictionary meaning of resisting or contending against.” Giving the term broad meaning, the court concluded that “oppose” goes beyond “active, consistent behavior in ordinary discourse, and may be used to speak of someone who has taken no action at all to advance a position beyond disclosing it.” Thus, the court held that an employee can “oppose” unlawful discrimination by merely responding to someone’s questions. Because the Court found that Plaintiff’s conduct was covered by the opposition clause, it did not address the lower courts’ interpretation of the “participation” clause.
Based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Crawford, Title VII’s anti-retaliation protection extends to an employee who speaks out about discrimination while participating in an employer’s internal investigation, even when the employer’s investigation did not relate to a pending EEOC charge and regardless of whether the employee initiated the allegations or provoked the discussion regarding the unlawful discrimination. In short, an employee who responds to questions during an employer’s internal investigation can assert a retaliation claim based on their passive involvement.