By Samson R. Elsbernd and Kelli M. Kennaday, Esq.
Discrimination in the workplace has been prohibited since at least 1964. In addition to prohibiting discrimination, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 also prohibits retaliation against employees who “oppose” unlawful employment practices. Over the years, there has been surprisingly little guidance from the courts on what constitutes “opposition” to discrimination or harassment sufficient to trigger those protections. It has generally been understood that someone who complains that they are the victim of discrimination or harassment is protected by the anti-retaliation provisions of those laws. On January 26, 2009, however, a unanimous United States Supreme Court extended the protections of those laws to employees who report discrimination or harassment of others during an employer’s internal investigation.
Employees who disclose unlawful employment practices when asked may not be retaliated against by their employer.
In Crawford v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, Tennessee, the local government investigated rumors of sexual harassment made against its employee relations director. A supervisor asked Ms. Crawford if she had seen “inappropriate behavior” by the employee relations director and Ms. Crawford shared several instances of such behavior. Ultimately, the employer did not take action against the employee relations director. However, it fired three employees who had disclosed inappropriate conduct when asked about it during the investigation, including Ms. Crawford. The employer claimed Ms. Crawford was fired for embezzlement; Ms. Crawford claimed she was fired in retaliation for reporting the sexual harassment. The lower courts did not allow Ms. Crawford’s case to proceed, finding that she did not “oppose” an unlawful employment practice because she had not made an actual complaint about it. Rather, she had simply disclosed what she had seen when asked. The Supreme Court reversed, finding that the anti-retaliation provisions of Title VII protect not only employees who make an initial complaint or report of unlawful employment practices, but also employees who have “taken no action at all […] beyond disclosing it” when asked.
The Supreme Court stated that any other outcome would result in a “freakish” rule that protected employees who reported discrimination on their own, but not those who reported it after they were asked about it by a supervisor. Such a rule would discourage employees from cooperating with employers during internal investigations. The Court rejected the argument that its rule would discourage employers from conducting internal investigations. Under the Court’s previous decisions, employers have a defense to harassment and discrimination claims when no tangible employment action is taken if the employer “exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct promptly” any discriminatory conduct and “the plaintiff employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventative or corrective opportunities provided by the employer or to avoid harm otherwise.” Thus, the Court concluded, employers always have good reason to conduct an investigation into allegations of unlawful employment practices in the workplace.
How broad is the Supreme Court’s Interpretation of “Opposition” to Unlawful Employment Practices?
The language of the Supreme Court’s opinion in Crawford suggests that courts will interpret the term “opposition” within the anti-retaliation laws very broadly. The Supreme Court noted that when employees share their belief that the employer has committed harassment or discrimination, the employee has “virtually always” opposed an unlawful employment practice. The exceptions, noted the court, will be the “eccentric cases.” Even more troublingly, the Court specifically stated that it was not deciding whether “opposition” includes silent opposition to unlawful employment practices. An example of “silent opposition” would be when an employee disapproves of an unlawful employment practice but never shares that disapproval with her employer. While stating that it was not deciding the issue, the Court suggested that “opposition” might include silent opposition. In giving an example of what does not constitute opposition, the Court referenced an employee who thinks a supervisor’s racist joke is hilarious. The Court found that such an employee would not be covered by the anti-retaliation laws because that employee did not oppose an unlawful employment practice.
Lessons from Crawford
As always, if you are considering terminating an employee, it is important to review the employee’s history to determine whether he falls within a protected classification. An employee who has participated in a workplace investigation now should be included in the category of a protected class. The termination of an employee in a protected classification is a high risk termination and you should make sure that the reason for the termination decision is absolutely unrelated to the protected activity, is well documented and, if possible, was not made or influenced by the employee who was the subject of the investigation.