Crawford v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson Cty., No. 06-1595 (U.S. Supreme Court, Jan. 26, 2009)
Case Summary: In response to questions from an official of respondent local government (Metro) during an internal investigation into rumors of sexual harassment by the Metro School District employee relations director (Hughes), petitioner Crawford, a 30-year employee, reported that Hughes had sexually harassed her. Metro took no action against Hughes, but soon fired Crawford, alleging embezzlement. She filed suit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, claiming that Metro was retaliating for her report of Hughes’s behavior, in violation of 42 U. S. C. §2000e–3(a), which makes it unlawful “for an employer to discriminate against any … employe[e]” who (1) “has opposed any practice made an unlawful employment practice by this subchapter” (opposition clause), or (2) “has made a charge, testified, assisted, or participated in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing under this subchapter” (participation clause). The court granted Metro summary judgment, and the Sixth Circuit affirmed, holding that the opposition clause demanded “active, consistent” opposing activities, whereas Crawford had not initiated any complaint prior to the investigation, and finding that the participation clause did not cover Metro’s internal investigation because it was not conducted pursuant to a Title VII charge pending with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Held: The antiretaliation provision’s 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. Because “oppose” is undefined by statute, it carries its ordinary dictionary meaning of resisting or contending against. Crawford’s statement is thus covered by the opposition clause, as an ostensibly disapproving account of Hughes’s sexually obnoxious behavior toward her. “Oppose” goes beyond “active, consistent” behavior in ordinary discourse, and may be used to speak of someone who has taken no action at all to advance a position beyond disclosing it. Thus, a person can “oppose” by responding to someone else’s questions just as surely as by provoking the discussion. 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 asked a question. Metro unconvincingly argues for the Sixth Circuit’s active, consistent opposition rule, claiming that employers will be less likely to raise questions about possible discrimination if a retaliation charge is easy to raise when things go badly for an employee who responded to enquiries. Employers, however, have a strong inducement to ferret out and put a stop to discriminatory activity in their operations because Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 U. S. 742 , and Faragher v. Boca Raton, 524 U. S. 775 , hold “[a]n employer … subject to vicarious liability to a victimized employee for an actionable hostile environment created by a supervisor with … authority over the employee.” The Circuit’s rule could undermine the Ellerth–Faragher scheme, along with the statute’s “ ‘primary objective’ ” of “avoid[ing] harm” to employees, Faragher, supra, at 806, for if an employee reporting discrimination in answer to an employer’s questions could be penalized with no remedy, prudent employees would have a good reason to keep quiet about Title VII offenses. Because Crawford’s conduct is covered by the opposition clause, this Court does not reach her argument that the Sixth Circuit also misread the participation clause. Metro’s other defenses to the retaliation claim were never reached by the District Court, and thus remain open on remand. Pp. 3–8.
211 Fed. Appx. 373, reversed and remanded.
Souter, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Stevens, Scalia, Kennedy, Ginsburg, and Breyer, JJ., joined. Alito, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which Thomas, J., joined.
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