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Supreme Court Rules for Workers in Retaliation Case

January 26, 2009 at 6:30 PM EDT
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The Supreme Court ruled Monday that employees who speak out against discrimination in the workplace are entitled to legal protection from retribution. Marcia Coyle explains the court's decision.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, the Supreme Court grants protection to employees who speak out against discrimination in the workplace. Margaret Warner has our story.

MARGARET WARNER: Today’s decision involves a Tennessee woman who was fired from her job in the Nashville school district after she cooperated in a sexual harassment investigation of her supervisor. She sued, and today the justices said unanimously that her case may go forward under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Here to tell us more is NewsHour regular Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal.

Marcia, welcome back.

MARCIA COYLE, National Law Journal: Thank you, Margaret.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, now, flush out the story, would you, of the woman, Ms. Crawford, who originally filed this suit.

MARCIA COYLE: Vicky Crawford was a 30-year employee of the Nashville school district. As you said, she did not initiate the complaints against the school district’s employee relations director, but she was interviewed as part of the investigation because her work brought her into contact with him.

When asked, she told the investigator that she had experienced a number of inappropriate acts by the director, including an instance when he grabbed her head and pulled it down to his crotch.

After the investigation was completed, the director was not disciplined, but she and two other women who made statements in the investigation were fired. She filed suit claiming retaliation by the employer for her statements.

So the issue before the court here was whether she was protected under Title VII’s provision that prohibits employers from retaliating against a worker who opposes an illegal discriminatory act, here sexual harassment, or, more broadly, is a worker’s statement in an internal investigation, can that be considered opposing an illegal discrimination?

Court rules in favor of employee

MARGARET WARNER: Why was it even raised as a question when I think most people know, if someone complains or files a charge of sexual harassment or a complaint, they are definitely protected from retaliation?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, the lower courts had divided over whether statements in an internal investigation, where the worker hasn't filed the complaint, could be protected. The statute, as Justice Souter, who wrote for the court today, said, doesn't define "opposes." So he had to look, first, at what he said was the ordinary dictionary definition of the word, and that includes resisting or antagonistic.

He said that he felt that the statements made by Ms. Crawford in the minds of reasonable jurors would surely qualify as being resistant or antagonistic to the director's conduct here. And he rejected the lower court rule here that did require workers to take an affirmative, active step, such as filing a complaint.

MARGARET WARNER: And what did he say about the arguments that had been advanced by the school district, about why this kind of conversation or interview, statement should not be protected?

MARCIA COYLE: The school district and employer groups who supported it argued that this would make retaliation an easy claim by an employee who suffered any bad job action, adverse job action, if that employee had at whatever time participated in an investigation. And the employers also claim that employers would try to avoid the headache and just not do these investigations.

But Justice Souter said the court has given employers many incentives, such as, if you conduct these investigations, if you have anti-discrimination policies, you can use that as a defense against a charge of discrimination.

MARGARET WARNER: And these are the kinds of investigations that take place even if a formal charge with, say, under the EEOC statute, the federal statute, hasn't been filed?

MARCIA COYLE: That's correct.

MARGARET WARNER: And the court has, what, been encouraging these, in a way?

MARCIA COYLE: The court since 2006 has issued a series of decisions -- I think at least four -- giving workers strong protections against retaliation.

You might ask, well, does this mean the Roberts court now is a pro-employee court? Well, the Roberts court has been, I think, fairly characterized as pro-business and pro-employer because of a number of very important decisions. But I think what these cases show is that, while the Roberts court is often pro-business, pro-employer, it is not always that way.

The impact of the ruling

MARGARET WARNER: And how widespread an impact will this have?

MARCIA COYLE: Well, I think it will have a very important impact. I don't know how widespread.

But if you understand that most companies, most employers do have these policies in which they will proactively investigate claims of harassment, then workers should feel confident now that they can speak up in that investigation and be protected against retaliation.

If they weren't, as Justice Souter said, they would remain silent, and that would undermine our anti-discrimination policies and laws.

MARGARET WARNER: And, meanwhile, Ms. Crawford is not out of the woods yet.

MARCIA COYLE: No, she isn't. The case will go back now to trial. The employer here, the school district, had raised other defenses that the Supreme Court did not address in this case. And so the battle will begin again.

MARGARET WARNER: Marcia, thanks so much.

MARCIA COYLE: My pleasure.