Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Supreme Court hears oral argument in Crawford v. Nashville - asks whether participating in an investigation equal protected activity

The Supreme Court started its term this week, and wasted no time hearing its first employment case. Yesterday it heard oral argument in Crawford v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville, which is out of the 6th Circuit. Crawford asks if Title VII's anti-retaliation provision protects an employee from being fired because she cooperated with her employer's internal sexual harassment investigation.

Vicki Crawford was terminated after she participated in an internal investigation of a sexual harassment claim made by a co-worker. The 6th Circuit held that her employer had no retaliated against her because participation in a purely internal, in-house investigation, in the absence of any pending EEOC charge, is not a protected activity. The Court reasoned that a contrary result would chill employers' investigations because they would not interview witnesses for fear of potential retaliation liability. Crawford, not surprisingly, has argued the converse, that employees will likely avoid aiding employers with internal investigations if they believe they can be fired for do so, which will chill the investigations.

The Workplace Prof Blog has a thorough analysis of the oral argument. The Justices' questioning seems to indicate that case can go either way. The Justices were clearly bothered by a couple of things. First, the opposition clause would only protect those who take the employee's side, and not those that might support the employer. Practically, this should be a non-issue because those employees that support the employer should not have to fear retaliation. Secondly, the Justices expressed a real fear about opening the floodgates to federal court with a slew of retaliation claims based on purely internal investigations.

It is here that I agree with Professor McCormick from the Workplace Prof Blog. Ultimately, this is a policy driven, and not statutory driven, case. It should come down to whether five of the Justices value protecting the sanctity of internal workplace investigations. It seems that the employee has the better of the argument. Employees already perceive that they can be fired if the company doesn't like what they have to say. As one who's done his fair share of internal investigations, take it from me that it's hard enough as is to get employees to voluntarily cooperate. Assurances of no-retaliation are usually necessary to get them to open up, if at all. A ruling for the employer in this case would make internal investigations all that much harder to conduct. Because internal investigations are essential to our harassment jurisprudence, the Court would be sending the wrong message by coming down on the employer's side in this case.