The U.S. Supreme Court issued an important decision yesterday, clarifying that employees who report discrimination in response to an employer’s internal investigation are protected by the anti-retaliation provisions of Title VII.  Click here to download the case:  Crawford v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville

In Crawford, the plaintiff was interviewed as part of her employer’s investigation into another employee’s complaint of sexual harassment.  In response, Crawford reported harassment that she experienced.  Soon thereafter, Crawford’s employment was terminated; the employer claimed the plaintiff embezzled funds, but Crawford filed a lawsuit alleging the termination was in retaliation for her participation in the investigation.  The district court dismissed Crawford’s lawsuit on the grounds that, while Title VII makes it unlawful to retaliate against an employee because she "opposed" sexual harassment, Crawford did not "oppose" anything; she merely answered questions in response to an internal investigation.  

The Supreme Court reversed (9-0!), holding that "oppose" should be read broadly.  As Justice Souter wrote:

"’Oppose’ goes beyond ‘active, consistent’ behavior in ordinary discourse, where we would naturally use the word to speak of someone who has taken no action at all to advance a position beyond disclosing it.  Countless people were known to “oppose” slavery before Emancipation, or are said to “oppose” capital punishment today, without writing public letters, taking to the streets, or resisting the government.  And we would call it ‘opposition’ if an employee took a stand against an employer’s discriminatory practices not by ‘instigating’ action, but by standing pat, say, by refusing to follow a supervisor’s order to fire a junior worker for discriminatory reasons."

What does this mean for employers?  For starters, the number of employees protected by Title VII’s anti-retaliation provisions has significantly increased.  When making employment decisions — terminations, layoffs, discipline — employers should include passive participants in discrimination investigations in their list of "high risk" employees.  And, even though Crawford considered only Title VII, we expect courts will apply its ruling to the similar anti-retaliation provisions in other statutes as well, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and others.