Crawford v. Metropolitan Gov’t of Nashville & Davidson County, 555 U.S. 271 (2009)

Vicky Crawford was interviewed during the course of an investigation into “rumors of sexual harassment” involving the Metro School District’s employee relations director, Gene Hughes. Crawford described several instances of sexually harassing behavior that Hughes allegedly directed at her; two other employees also reported being sexually harassed by Hughes. Although Metro took no action against Hughes, it fired Crawford and the two other accusers soon after completing the investigation, saying in Crawford’s case that she was terminated for embezzlement. Crawford filed suit under Title VII, which prohibits retaliation against an employee who “opposes” an unlawful employment practice or who “participated” in an investigation thereof. The district court granted summary judgment in Metro’s favor on the ground that Crawford had not “instigated or initiated any complaint” and that she had “merely answered questions by investigators in an already-pending internal investigation initiated by someone else.” The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed the judgment. The Supreme Court unanimously reversed, holding that “[t]here is… no reason to doubt that a person can ‘oppose’ [within the meaning of the statute] by responding to someone else’s question just as surely as by provoking the discussion, and nothing in the statute 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 her boss asks a question.” Cf. Lakeside-Scott v. Multnomah County, 556 F.3d 797 (9th Cir. 2009) (final decision maker’s wholly independent, legitimate decision to terminate employee is insulated from liability even though lower-level supervisor who was involved in the process had a retaliatory motive to have the employee fired).