In Crawford v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville, 555 U.S. 271 (2009), the Supreme Court held that the protection of the opposition clause of Title VII’s antiretaliation provision extended to an employee who spoke out about sexual harassment, not on her own initiative, but in answering questions during employer’s investigation of coworker’s complaints.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, or religion. Relevant to Crawford, Title VII also contains an antiretaliation provision that protects employees who oppose discrimination in employment or participate in discrimination proceedings under Title VII. That provision, codified at 42 U.S.C. § 2000e–3(a), makes it unlawful “for an employer to discriminate against any … employe[e]”who (1) “has opposed any practice made an unlawful employment practice by this subchapter” (opposition clause), or (2) “has made a charge, testified, assisted, or participated in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing under this subchapter” (participation clause).
Crawford worked 30 years for the Metropolitan Government of Nashville. Metro initiated an internal investigation into rumors of sexual harassment by the Metro School District’s employee relations director, Hughes. Crawford was interviewed as part of the investigation. In response to questions from a Metro official during that interview, Crawford reported that Hughes had sexually harassed her. Metro took no action against Hughes, but soon fired Crawford, alleging embezzlement.
Crawford filed suit under Title VII’s antiretaliation provision, claiming that she was terminated in retaliation for her report of Hughes’s behavior. Crawford asserted that her responses in the internal interview constituted protected activity under both the opposition clause and the participation clause of the antiretaliation provision, quoted above.
The trial court granted summary judgment to Metro, and the Sixth Circuit affirmed, holding that the opposition clause required “active, consistent” opposing activities, whereas Crawford had not initiated any complaint prior to the investigation. The lower courts also found that the participation clause did not cover Metro’s internal investigation because it was not conducted pursuant to a Title VII charge pending with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. 555 U.S. at 273-76.
The Court’s Decision
The Court reversed the part of the decision finding that Crawford had not engaged in protected activity under the opposition clause.
The Court held that Title VII’s antiretaliation provision’s “opposition clause” protection extends to an employee who speaks out about discrimination not on her own initiative, but in answering questions during an employer’s internal investigation.
In reaching this conclusion, the Court reasoned that because “oppose” is undefined by the statute, it carries its ordinary dictionary meaning of “resisting” or “contending against.” In light of that meaning, Crawford’s statement was covered by the opposition clause, as it was an ostensibly disapproving account of Hughes’s sexually obnoxious behavior toward her.
The Court further observed 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. Therefore, the Court reasoned, a person can “oppose” by responding to someone else’s questions regardless of who initiated the discussion. The Court found that nothing in Title VII requires a “freakish rule” protecting an employee who reports discrimination on her own initiative but not one who reports the same discrimination in the same words when asked a question.
The Court then rejected Metro’s argument for the Sixth Circuit’s “active, consistent opposition” rule. Metro claimed that employers would be less likely to raise questions about possible discrimination if a retaliation charge was easy to raise when things go badly for an employee who responded to enquiries. The Court rejected that argument, reasoning that employers already had a strong inducement to ferret out and put a stop to discriminatory activity because of the Court’s precedential decisions. For example, Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742, 765 (1998) and Faragher v. Boca Raton, 524 U.S. 775, 807 (1998) hold “[a]n employer … subject to vicarious liability to a victimized employee for an actionable hostile environment created by a supervisor with … authority over the employee.” Id.
The Court observed that the Sixth Circuit’s rule could undermine the Ellerth–Faragher
scheme, along with Title VII’s “primary objective” of “avoid[ing] harm” to employees. Faragher at 806. This is because if an employee 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 further found that because Crawford’s conduct was covered by the opposition clause, it was not necessary to address her argument that the Sixth Circuit also misread Title VII’s participation clause. 555 U.S. at 276-80.
In short, Crawford held that the protection of the opposition clause of Title VII’s antiretaliation provision extends to employees who speak out about unlawful discrimination or harassment, not on their own initiative, but in answering questions during an employer’s internal investigation of coworker’s complaints. The decision is important because it provides protection for employees who speak up about workplace discrimination in the context of internal investigations or questioning from their employers — even if the employee did not initiate the conversation.
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