High court sides with worker over retaliation

WASHINGTON — Workers who cooperate with their employers' internal investigations of discrimination may not be fired in retaliation for implicating colleagues or superiors, a unanimous Supreme Court ruled Monday.

The justices held that a longtime school system employee in Tennessee can pursue a civil rights lawsuit over her firing.

The court voted to reverse the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' ruling that the anti-retaliation provision of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act does not apply to employees who merely cooperate with an internal probe rather than complain on their own or take part in a formal investigation.

The Cincinnati-based court was alone among federal appeals courts in its narrow view of the civil rights law, which was already understood to bar retaliation against people who complained about harassment and other discrimination.

"The question here is whether this protection extends to an employee who speaks out about discrimination not on her own initiative, but in answering questions during an employer's internal investigation. We hold that it does," Justice David Souter said for the court.

Vicky Crawford was fired in 2003 after more than 30 years as an employee of the school system for Nashville, Tenn., and Davidson County.

She did not file a complaint about harassment by a school official. But she said she had been subjected to unwanted sexual advances when she was interviewed by investigators for the school system who were looking into other employees' allegations against the director of employee relations.

Crawford related instances in which the official, Gene Hughes, allegedly put his crotch up to her office window and entered her office, grabbed her head and pulled it to his crotch, Souter said in his opinion.

The school system took no action against Hughes. Crawford was fired months later.

She filed a federal lawsuit, but it was dismissed by a federal judge and upheld on appeal.

The Bush administration backed Crawford in her appeal to the Supreme Court.

Ann Steiner, Crawford's attorney, said the ruling is a "great win for civil rights."

"It means from this point on no matter who instigates an investigation or conversation about harassment, if someone communicates that they've been harassed, they'll be protected under the retaliation provisions," Steiner said.

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