A Strong and Clear Decision by the Supreme Court and a Legal Black Eye in Tennessee

Originally published on January 29, 2009, at care2.com/causes/women’srights/blog



Rejecting the tortured logic of a decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit (KY, TN, OH, MI), the U.S. Supreme Courthas ruled that a woman fired for cooperating with an internal investigation of sexual harassment is entitled to protection from federal law. 

Vicky Crawford, a 30-year-old payroll-department employee of theMetropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County was interviewed by the county’s legal staff in the course of an inquiry into sexual harassment allegations.  Crawford did not file a sexual harassment complaint herself, but did provide evidence of harassment during the inquiry into rumors that a county director had harassed another female county employee.  After cooperating in the investigation, Crawford was terminated.

Protection under the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Crawford then filed suit claiming the protections of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects employees from retaliatory firing for complaining against or opposing unlawful discrimination.  A federal judge and eventually the Court of Appeals sitting in Nashville rejected Crawford’s claim, ruling that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects only people who actively oppose discrimination, filing formal complaints or seek to give evidence, but that merely cooperating in an investigation which results in firing is not enough to deserve the law’s protection. 

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, reversed the Court of Appeals, ruling in Crawford’s favor.  Justice  David Souter sharply rejected the lower courts’ reasoning, offering as much a rebuke to the judges below as the ever-respectful high court is want to do.  Souter called “freakish” the courts’ interpretation of the law that cooperation in an investigation, resulting in termination, is insufficient to merit the protection given to those who oppose discrimination by taking action such as filing a complaint or suit. 

The High Court’s Reasoning 

The Supreme Court essentially said that if the action taken by the employee against unlawful harassment was enough to get her fired, it must have been enough to qualify as “opposing” unlawful discrimination under the “opposition” protection of the Civil Rights Act.  It would be ludicrous to say that she was fired for what she did, but that what she did wasn’t action enough to trigger legal protection against firing.  

The sixth circuit’s interpretation was remarkably narrow and not one likely to have come from the United States Court of Appeals in other districts.  In any case, the lower threshold for what constitutes protected “opposition” is now the law of the land, and the logic of the decision should apply beyond sexual harassment cases to unlawful employment practices covered by the Civil Rights Act. 

A Clear Message

Despite statements from both sides of the political spectrum that the U.S. Supreme Court is irreconcilably split, the high court does as times speak with one voice.  In this case, there should be no doubt what the court is saying to American workers:  The government stands on the side of those who oppose or give evidence against illegal discrimination.

See the text of the court’s decision and Justice Alito’s concurring opinion in Crawford v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, Tennessee at www.supremecourtus.gov.

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